(David Mackenzie, 2013)
Mackenzie's talent and control is evident in the first few moments of Starred Up. His camera follows 19 year old Eric Love (Jack O'Connell, sensationally good) as he is led into a prison building by a series of Guards. He is searched, he is dressed, he is ordered about, he is locked up in a cell. The camera observes all this from middle distance, calmly, without much judgement in its placement or the editing of the measured shots. And yet it is handheld, and soon, once Eric erupts into the violence that has seen him "starred up" (prison slang for what happens when a young offender is transferred to an adult facility for repeated violence), it is right in the middle of the action, juddering and whiplashing about as men smash into men. This combination of a sweaty handheld immediacy and a more controlled distance is a tricky one to navigate, yet Mackenzie does it seemingly effortlessly.
And more; his use of depth of field to suggest the levels of this prison - doorways within doorways, cages behind netting, gate after gate under balcony beyond bars - is subtle and brilliant, while the queasy palette of the building and its walls; entirely sickly yellow and pallid green, nicely captures the sickness of the system running this place. He has taken a good screenplay and directed the hell out of it.
That screenplay was written by Jonathan Asser, based upon his own experience of working as a voluntary therapist at a London prison, and it follows Eric after his arrival at the same prison holding his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a respected con on a life sentence. Eric is puffed up with cocky aggression, determined to stand up for himself in this hostile environment, and angry at the world for what it has done to him.
O'Connell plays him as a clever, insecure little brooder, liable to volcanic rages, and it is the genius of his performance that midway through the second act we begin to soften towards Eric, and recognise him as teh vulnerable kid he is. That is partly because he has been identified as such by Baumer (Rupert Friend), a voluntary therapist who works with a group of prisoners and takes Eric on despite his challenging attitude.
Slowly Eric changes, but the prison is the same (literally) cutthroat world it always was, and politics among prisoners and guards may threaten his existence there.
Brimming with imminent violence and stifled terror, Starred Up is a bruising, intense watch. The father-son relationship underpinning much of the drama gives it a little more emotional heft than many films in the genre, allowing it to transcend the many cliches it deals in. Asser's unique perspective on the material helps too, allowing him to analyse the violence and machismo of his characters - a confrontation in one of Baumer's sessions is one of the most realistic I've ever seen - while Mackenzie understands its allure and usefulness in the creation of tension.
All of this would be little use without the performances of O'Connell and Mendelsohn, ably supported by Friend. They make it intimate and personal, messy and painful, in a way few prison movies can be.