Starred Up ★★★★½

Holy crap. I don’t often sit down to write a review immediately after watching a film, but Starred Up provokes such an incredible amount of emotion to bubble to the surface that it’s hard not to unburden myself from it immediately. There’s an intrinsic energy to this film, grounded in what normally would be classified as “gritty realism” - but which I’d argue is something approaching “purity” here - and it’s this unrelentingness that steers Starred Up’s narrative through some grimy territory.

If it all feels precarious, it’s because Jack O’Connell’s performance is so absolutely stellar that he seems ready to implode at any second, while David Mackenzie’s no-nonsense approach to direction and editing captures that energy so perfectly. Standout supporting performances by Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend are so overshadowed by O’Connell’s commanding performance that it’s easy to miss how great this film’s supporting cast is.

This is an absolute must-see film (if you can stomach a bit of violence), and a startling exception to prison-set films (A Prophet perhaps being the only other that comes to mind). That’s due almost entirely to how it approaches the subject matter, avoiding saccharine trappings and packaging it in testosterone-fueled indignation. Starred Up explores notions in binary - what it is to be truly orphaned, but equally what it is to have a father. What it is to be an outsider, but also what it is to be accepted for all that you are. And finally, what it is to defy a system that fails you - while coming to understand that defiance has more than one form.