Director: David Mackenzie
Runtime: 106 minutes
The last time David Mackenzie made a movie, he attracted two sizable names - Ewan McGregor and Eva Green - yet virtually no audience outside of festivals. That film was called Perfect Sense, and like all of Mackenzie's other films, it was divisive. Yet when Perfect Sense's odd blend of pandemic thriller and romance clicked, it truly soared. After two all-over-the-place acts, Mackenzie stuck the landing in the home stretch, particularly in the devastatingly beautiful final sequence. Perfect Sense could be a tin-eared, tone deaf mess, but there was something intriguing about the dedication on all fronts.
Jump forward two years (or only one if you're in the UK), and Mackenzie has done a total 180. His new film, Starred Up, finds the fascinating director tackling the well-worn territory of the grimy prison drama. Working off of a script from Jonathan Asser, Mackenzie has made a film that ticks all of the gritty kitchen sink cinema boxes, down to the accents that will leave large portions of non-British English speakers leaning in to better decipher the dialogue. Starred Up is a turning point for Mackenzie as a director - as evidenced by the thus far unanimous acclaim for the film, but I find myself apprehensive about where his career will go from this point. Mackenzie has delivered what is both his most consistent film, and his least interesting.
At the center of Starred Up is Eric (rising Irish star Jack O'Connell), a volatile young man who has just been transferred from a young offender institution to an adult prison. Though Eric doesn't immediately attract attention from other inmates, an unfortunate incident puts him on thin ice with the draconian prison staff, who give him an ultimatum: he must take a group therapy course led by Mr. Baumer (Homeland's Rupert Friend) without any more violations, or risk being sent to solitary confinement. Complicating matters is the guiding hand of fellow inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who just happens to be Eric's estranged father.
To Mackenzie's credit, he has adapted to this more traditional narrative format quite well. He navigates the confined spaces of the prison well, never allowing the limited spaces to force him into visual repetition. Mackenzie's work with his cast is also quite effective, with O'Connell giving solid evidence that those "next big thing" labels may actually be justified. It's an enormously physical performance, relying on the actor's ability to snap into violent rage at any given moment, and O'Connell carries himself quite well through all of it. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, continues his streak of compelling portraits of morally dubious men, while Friend - despite not enough to do - brings a nice level of calm to his scenes.
Yet even though Asser's script steers Mackenzie into relatively straightforward territory, it's also responsible for the rather shrug-worthy pieces that fit into Starred Up's whole. The story spends far too long getting Eric into Baumer's group, leaving barely any time for the group therapy scenes to amount to much of anything. While Asser's dialogue avoids overbearing profundities, it also never taps into the inner workings of its characters and their histories of violence. The development of Eric and Neville's father/son relationship is paced rather glacially, which keeps the harrowing final scenes from landing with their full impact.
The script's stabs at tackling broader issues often suffer as well. In tiny doses, Starred Up tries to tackle the ideas of a broken prison system that spends no time trying to rehabilitate its inmates. It may have been an attempt at subtlety, but it feels like a giant missed opportunity. Friend does his best to sell Baumer's impassioned plea for actual support of the inmates' mental health, but the scene ultimately rings false. Rather than subtlety, it's an example of there being too little far too late.
Mackenzie and his cast, at least, navigate through the slipshod story quite well, even when so many potentially compelling moments wind up dramatically inert. Starred Up tries to play the prison drama angle two different ways - gritty character piece and social commentary - yet can't quite make either one connect. The film goes through the paces, often admirably, yet there's a noticeable lack of true tension or danger, even when the fists start flying. The most interesting part of it all may simply be wondering what attracted a man like David Mackenzie to something so unwaveringly mundane.