Tuesday, March 18, 2014

'Starred Up' (2014) directed by David McKenzie

Prison is a fascinating place in cinema. Good directors use it as a microcosm  - a hermetically sealed bottle where frustrations, resentments and violence that bubble under the society's surface come to the forth, usually in a torrent of swearing and brutality.  My genre favourites are Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped, Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman and Alan Clarke's Scum - all of which are politically and psychologically incisive.  It's the last of these that Starred Up most resembles: both films are gritty, foul-mouthed and vicious.

We follow the young Eric (Jack O'Connell) as he's "starred up", the slang term for a prisoner moved from a young offenders institution to regular prison. Eric is not a very nice man. He's Alexander DeLarge crossed with Charles Bronson; capable of dishing out and receiving beatings, taking a psychotically masochistic pleasure in causing as much havoc as he can. Almost from the moment he's placed in his cell he lashes out, fracturing another inmates skull, fighting off body-armoured prison guards and threatening to chew off a guard's testicles. It's difficult to say he's a "hero" (or even an antihero really) we don't like him, we don't want to see him succeed and we certainly don't want to see him released or escape.

Eric is a blunt instrument but he's at least honest about it. Less so are the complex tangle of interpersonal relationships between guards and inmates - his arrival throwing a wrench into the smoothly running machine of low-level drug-dealing, casual violence and entrenched social hierarchies.  Prime among his difficulties is that he's incarcerated on the same wing as his Dad, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). Though Neville's been in prison for most of Eric's life the two are clearly cut from the same cloth - both men quick to raise their fists. Further dramatic fuel is added by the intervention of Oliver (Rupert Friend), an anger management counsellor who runs a group for violent offenders. Oliver is a bit of a puzzle, mixing a weird class guilt with an affinity with these men - the only non-inmate who genuinely seems to care about rehabilitation.

I visit prisons in a professional capacity and though this obviously don't give me any insight into what it's like to live there - I can at least say that McKenzie captures the dreary Victorian institutional squalor perfectly. Paint peels from the walls, the bars shabbily wear their 11th coat of paint since they were installed, the markings on the floors bear the scuff-marks of ten thousand miserably plodding prison-issue shoes. You can almost smell the disinfectant (with the faintest whiff of piss and vomit underneath) that characterises life  at her Majesty's pleasure. Perhaps it's not really surprising that the location looks so realistically downbeat - the film was shot in the disused Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast - once known as "Europe's Alcatraz".  

But you can't just shoot inside a prison and expect the location to do all the heavy lifting. McKenzie knows this, exploring the space with an immaculately minimalist style, the most efficient weapons in his arsenal long tracking shots along the cell block and repeated closeups of eyes glaring through slats in the doors. This precise and controlled style reflects the carefully ordered institutional world these men live in. The repeated close-ups induce a state of claustrophobia - subtly giving the audience a taste of what it's like to be stuck in a place like this.

The excellent sound design also contributes, the omnipresent sounds of metal doors slamming shut, burbling conversation, faint abuse and alarms ringing almost down the corridor. It was so expertly done that in an early scene I thought one of the alarms we were hearing was the cinema fire alarm going off.  The violence also has a visceral *thwak* to the blows - when these men hit each other you hear the brittle crack of bones breaking and flesh thudding against the floor.

Technically its quite marvellous, as are practically all the performances, particularly O'Connell in the lead role.  So what does all this add up to?  Writer Jonathan Asser (who I gather the counsellor character is a dramatised version of) clearly has something to say about the Her Majesty's Prison Service, but, amidst the beatings, blood and broken bones, what is it? 

Prior to Eric's arrival in the prison, life seems to exist in a state of uneasy peace.  The warden conspiring with high-status inmates to get drugs into the prison, thus allowing a miniature gangland to develop. The pecking order this creates means everyone knows their place, so life goes on under a cycle of addiction, fear and respect. Eric's arrival throws everyone for a loop - he doesn't respect any of this, battling against every entrenched power structure he encounters - be it the prison itself or the organised crime within it. Like a seed introduced to a saturated solution his behaviour crystallises the hidden violence that keeps the whole system going.

Underneath all this lies the question as to whether prison should be a place for punishment or rehabilitation - the film firmly coming down on the side of rehabilitation, or at bare minimum behavioural management. What Starred Up ultimately concludes is that the prison system is institutionally violent and that the behaviour of the inmates is symptomatic of the cruelty of the system they find themselves inside. While there's a few good eggs within the ranks of the guards, they primarily exist to torment the prisoners - even to murder them if they cause a big enough stink.

It's a pretty cynical outlook, though one with undeniable roots in reality. You only have to look at how many suspicious deaths in police custody are ruled as suicides to realise how scarily easy it would be for guards to 'arrange' for them to happen.  In the cinema I was in this clearly touched a nerve; one woman spontaneously yelling out "fuck the system!" during a particularly unpleasant sequence.  

Noble though revealing this is there's an uneasy sensationalism to the film. Though obviously intended to condemn the violence is both cathartic and brutally satisfying to watch. Like Romans watching gladiators go at it we eagerly await the next clash of bone and muscle, taking homoerotic pleasure in watching "well 'ard" men go at each other.  These opposing forced make Starred Up is a difficult film to classify, ultimately lying somewhere between socially conscious messaging and lurid exploitation - but though it often falters this is never less than compelling, smart cinema.


Starred Up is on general release from March 21st

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