Ruth Scouller’s review published on Letterboxd:
One of the most claustrophobic films I have ever seen. The air might as well be cotton as it becomes increasingly hard to breathe in this film environment. Yet, this is a prison film where a prison escape would mean very little. Prison can be more than physical confinement, and for young offender turned adult crim Eric, it is about escaping a certain, conditioned way of life, about finding clarity from inside the black hole of a brutal childhood. The escape valve is within, but it needs some outside mentoring help. Ultimately, his father will have to help show him the light, in one way or another.
David Mackenzie seems to have a thing for stripping away and streamlining his humanistic subject matter that touches on conditional habit. This might have a claim to being his finest film to date, and it is certainly one of the most effective films at shaking up the prison genre in sometime. Objectively, this is a 4 star film at worst, however I factor personal enjoyment into my ratings, and ultimately due to the unrelenting darkness and profanity (which borders on parody levels, regardless of realism) explored in the film it fell short of that rating by miniscule proportions. It's much easier to admire and respect this film than to enjoy it, despite its clear compassion for the plight of its characters.
The acting here is extraordinary, particularly the memorable and incredibly charming star-making performance from Jack O'Connell. His acting choices in this film are incredibly beautiful to behold, and anyone who watches this film will never forget this actor. The same could be said for Rupert Friend, who in many ways almost matches him. As a long time Mendelsohn fan very familiar with his overall filmography, Ben didn't quite blow me away here, but he also delivers a solid performance with some great moments. Mostly though it's a bit like Maggie Smith doing Downton Abbey, it's a bit like putting the kettle on for Ben.
Starred Up has a clear character arc, a somewhat twisted Greek tragedy, but despite some excellent editing, it's a bit of a miserable slog in getting there. It's the raw, uncompromising prison film we had to have, but not a film I particular wish to see again any time soon. Starred Up does not shy away from some of the miserable existences which populate prison life, and it illustrates a thoroughly dehumanising environment for all involved, inmates, staff and viewers alike. Ultimately, this is an inspiring excursion into how much the human condition can tolerate in such a pressurised environment. There are moments of utter despair in this film, which make acts of compassion all the more heroic, even if sometimes doomed to temporary futility.