Friday, September 26, 2014

Starred Up

STARRED UP             B-                   
Great Britain  (106 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  David Mackenzie         Official site

A highly acclaimed British prison drama shot by an independent minded Scottish film director, the maker of YOUNG ADAM (2002) and HALLAM FOE (2007), one that uses a grim, ultra realistic style featuring ferocious acting, but at the same time stretches credulity, seemingly in contrast with one another, where many viewers will be scratching their heads wondering why violent criminals are contained in such a seemingly lax prison environment, as so much of the depiction of endless violence inside the prison is simply never contained, where there never seems to be appropriate consequences for obvious violations.  As the film is actually shot in the unused correctional center of HM Prison Maze in Belfast, Northern Ireland, closed since September 29, 2000, the irony is not lost on the viewers, as this was the site of the notorious 1981 Irish hunger strike when ten Irish political prisoners starved themselves to death, including Bobby Sands, who was a Member of Parliament at the time  The reason for his imprisonment was the possession of a handgun, for which he was sentenced to fourteen years in maximum security prison, some of which was spent naked while in solitary confinement, whose life was depicted with stunning clarity by British director Steve McQueen in HUNGER (2008).  This film initially has the feel of authenticity, adapted from a screenplay by Jonathan Asser who worked as a voluntary prison therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth in London, home of some of the country’s most violent criminals.  The title of the film represents the prison terminology used when they transfer a youth offender to an adult prison unit, in this case teenage Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a troubled kid from working class London with a violently abusive past.  However, nothing is known about him in the opening except he is a new prisoner, where the attention to detail is meticulously accurate, where he is forced to strip, his body inspected for contraband, and given a prison uniform to wear.  This begins a long, extended walk in real time that couldn’t be more precisely choreographed, wordlessly unlocking one set of doors while closing and locking the door behind, perhaps asking him to step forward, repeating the process again and again as a guard leads him through an elaborate maze of endless locked doors and empty walkways before finally arriving to his solitary cell.  The degree of locked down order and professionalism maintained in this sequence quickly erodes, where the conditions inside eventually descend into chaos and madness.  While it never reaches the heights of Jacques Audiard’s unflinching, near documentary realism in 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), and is near unintelligible (no subtitles) due to the non-stop use of profanity and heavily accented slang, MacKenzie nonetheless creates a bleak portrait of conflicting prison interests. 

This kid doesn’t waste any time and immediately gets to work melting the handle of his toothbrush where he’s smuggled a razor blade, molding the blade into the handle as a makeshift knife, immediately hiding it in the florescent lighting fixture on the ceiling.  This sequence has a Bressonian feel to it that’s told in a worldless rhythm defined by this particular environmental space, where he calmly measures each move even as internally he is emotionally rocked by this major change in his life.  By morning, he’s already verbally sparring with another large black inmate, where a bit of name calling will likely lead to predictable results, where it appears he intentionally picked this fight, publically, and in front of all the other inmates.  Taking his food to his cell, he lies in wait afterwards, pretending he is sleeping.  When another black prisoner from across the hall walks into his open cell, Eric springs from the bed and viciously attacks him, knocking him out with a single blow, dragging the man to the end of the hallway where the guards can provide medical treatment.  It’s little more than profanity being spewed back and forth between the prisoner and the guards, where no one simply talks, instead they shout and intimidate, where every act is a threat, using unintelligible slang that seems to define an unbalanced prison state of belligerence, where being a little mental can be used to one’s advantage.  By the time the guards enter his cell with riot gear, he fends them off with the broken legs of a wooden desk, using them as clubs, waving them in the air like a maniac.  Even after he’s apparently subdued, he chomps down on a guard’s testicles like a pitbull, eventually leading to a standoff, but only after a prison counselor Oliver (Rupert Friend) insists that he attend group therapy, “I can reach him,” he pleads, seemingly locking heads over the issue with Deputy Warden Hayes (Sam Spruell) who gives his permission.  Unlike Destin Cretton’s equally gut-wrenching Short Term 12 (2013), where there is a clear line between administrators and supervisory staff, not always in agreement but the film adequately explains the differing perspectives, this film makes no attempt whatsoever to provide any rational view of the administrators in charge of the prison, and instead turns them into bigger monsters than the prisoners themselves, modeled apparently after Cruella De Vil, as their criminally heinous acts throughout are nothing less than villainous.  It is surprising, however, to see female guards in an all-male prison facility that is this violent, where the head administrator is a big-bosomed, cruel-intentioned blond woman (Sian Breckin), using Hayes to run interference in the trenches for her. 

It’s a half-hour into the film before we discover a major revelation, curiously revealed by Eric’s improbable exploration into another inmate’s cell on the same wing where he finds a drawing he made as a child crudely showing a young child standing alongside his mother and father, all holding hands, with the inscription, “I Love you daddy.”  Meet Eric’s father, Neville Love, Ben Mendelsohn, an Australian actor from David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), separated from Eric at the age of 5, who adds something of a psychotic presence to an already hysterical prison environment, as his hair-trigger temper and propensity for violence makes him one of the lifers, his sentence extended as he apparently killed another prisoner, where he represents the hardened view of an inmate that will never see the light of day.  Eric, on the other hand, has only five years to serve and he’s free, his Dad reminds him, so he needs to cooperate and keep his hands clean, urging him to listen and follow instructions in therapy, which is little more than anger management sessions, though Eric does eventually acknowledge he was abused by a pedophile at the age of 10, where prisoners may become unhinged and subject to making vicious assaults when verbally provoked, where standing up for yourself isn’t so much a choice but a mandatory prerequisite to staying alive.  Eric, however, has little regard for the rules and remains out of control throughout, trashing his own cell as well as others, assaulting multiple guards, cutting up another inmate’s face, yet has free reign to wander the place at will with little, if any, consequences for his actions.  This defies belief, where the film is not without its flaws and has a clear ideological agenda, pitting the idealistic motives of the “volunteer” unpaid prison therapist, whose unconventional motives suggest his own dark past, against the more corrupt aims of the embattled administration that holds no hope whatsoever in the idea of prisoner rehabilitation, and instead routinely covers up their own treacherous crimes of targeting certain incorrigibles with murder faked to look like suicides.  When Hayes decides to implement such a plan against Eric, his father Neville goes ballistic, forced to fight through a battle royale of prison guards standing in his way to finally get to his son, which despite the authentic tone throughout adamantly strains belief, turning this into a kind of superhero prison drama, where the prisoners continually exert their moral and physical superiority over the continually outmanned and overwhelmed prison system that is crushed by the weight of its own ineptitude.  While the performances throughout are stellar, this grim and tightly edited drama literally makes the audience choke on the suffocating conditions, graphically raw and intense, never allowing the transcendent release of Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), continually tightening the screws, allowing no space to breathe in this taut prison thriller.  

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