Film reviews: Starred Up | Labor Day

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WHEN he enters prison at the beginning of David Mackenzie’s jail drama, Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is given a thorough, ritualistic and humiliating strip search, escorted through doors and hallways and finally deposited into a single cell in a high-risk unit.

Starred Up (18)

Starred Up. Picture: Contributed

Starred Up. Picture: Contributed

Director: David Mackenzie

Running time: 100 minutes

Star rating: * * * *

Another kind of 19-year-old might fall apart, but within minutes Eric is tooled up with a shiv fashioned from a melted toothbrush and safety razor, and he’s turned the bottom of the brush into a screwdriver so he can hide his piece in a light fitting for later use. The subtext is as economic and efficient as Eric’s weapon manufacturing: he’s a street-smart, self-possessed young offender, “starred up” by the authorities for bad behaviour and moved on to a full-scale prison, where he distinguishes himself by battering another inmate, and biting into a guard’s crotch with a relish that would have police dogs barking in admiration. Unsurprisingly, he ends a busy day in solitary.

The most captivating jail stories deliver their kicks with a cunning sort of hypocrisy, homing in on a hero unnerving enough to keep the viewer on edge, yet attractive enough to keep us watching. Eric shows little vulnerability to begin with, but Starred Up breaks down his abrasive personality for us incrementally, provided you stay alert for a dripfeed of detail.

Absentee parents pushed him into care, self-reliance, and his first violent act, aged ten. Ironically, jail now reunites him with his father for the first time in 14 years; Neville Love (Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn) is another inmate, serving a life sentence, and at a loss as to how to deal with his belligerent boy.

He’s not the only one: Eric has drawn the attention of a warden (Sam Spruell), who has been known to resolve difficult cases by staging prisoner suicides, and is resented by the old lag kingpin (Peter Ferdinando). But he’s also intrigued an anger management therapist (Rupert Friend), who wants to help, and comes across as a good sort, possibly because Starred Up’s writer Jonathan Asser is in the same line of work.

Eventually Starred Up evolves into a familiar prison exercise – a road to redemption with service station breaks that allow Eric to get into more fights – but the journey is an absorbing one with some terrific performances, and some surprising reveals. Asser’s script is rich in detail, drawing you into the tough, jittery ecology of jail without romanticising it, and the Scottish filmmaker draws out the nuances of his angry protagonist, filling out the dynamics of his awkward relationships and his propensity for destruction.

The film’s exploration of the legacy of violence is measured out in brief bursts that are always terrible and unsettling, but never feel indulgent or excessive. The many shots of closing or revolving doors might seem a little obvious, but I rather liked the film’s gentle insistence that escape requires more than walking through a gate, because sometimes you end up taking your cage with you.

Mackenzie has had an awkward time of it in recent years, with tepid responses to work like Spread, Perfect Sense and You Instead. After Starred Up, this year’s Scottish Bafta battles are going to be as tense as a prison shower scene. n

OTHER FILM RELEASES

Labor Day (12A)

Star rating: * *

IN THE same week that Starred Up details the grim sociology of being banged up, director Jason Reitman has more cheering news for us about felons: yes, some are damaged and dangerous, but if the mood takes them, there could also be pie.

That’s the experience of Adele (Kate Winslet), a depressed single mother who is taken hostage with her son (Gattlin Griffith) by escaped hunky killer Frank (Josh Brolin) and forced to hide him at their home over the Labor Day weekend. To ensure she can truthfully attest that she was held captive, Frank ties her up, but with the gentle attentiveness of Christian Grey. And then, instead of commandeering the TV remote and finding the news or even the sports channel, he sets about fixing her house, giving the boy baseball tips, cooking dinner and even getting her car thrumming again.

Next he revs up Adele with a tutorial on peach pie baking that resembles a parole version of the pottery lesson in Ghost, followed by some athletic sex, despite his very recent, still-oozing, appendectomy.

Previous Reitman films such as Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult have given actresses like Ellen Page, Anna Kendrick and Charlize Theron decent roles to chew on, but Labor Day is slow, overworked, doughy storytelling that tries to bake Paul Hollywood inside Nicholas Sparks.

Even so, Josh, you’re welcome to visit Synnot Towers any time: my peaches are nothing to write home about, but I have a month’s worth of odd jobs saved up for you.

• On general release from Friday

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