When hiding as a piece of popcorn seems like a great idea
Starred Up begins quietly, not anywhere near the intense and violent movie I had prepared myself for so I get suspicious. Such quietness rarely lasts forever. It is as if I’m listening to the very beginning of Pink Floyd’s In the Flesh. A brief moment of tranquillity before everything breaks loose.
We’re introduced to 19 year old Eric as he arrives at a prison for adults, transferred from a youth prison two years early for safety reasons. He looks a bit sullen, but he doesn’t make any noise or resistance as he goes through the body visitation and is led to his new cell. Left alone, he immediately creates a dangerous weapon out of a toothbrush and hides it for future needs and I prepare myself for what that will lead to.
Then someone gets within physical reach of him, something minor happens and Eric explodes. The reason for his anger isn’t obvious to me, but he doesn’t need a reason. There’s a burning rage inside him and it has to get out, like the lava erupting from a volcano.
The reputation of the film was well earned. It contains a lot of raw and realistic violence, similar to for instance Tyrannosaur or A Prophet. There’s no escape from it. When you see someone beheading an orch in a swordfight, you can easily shrug it off, “it’s only fantasy”. But watching this type of film I have to push back the urge to take cover on the floor behind the next row, pretending to be a piece of popcorn so that the protagonist wouldn’t notice me in case he suddenly jumped out from the screen (you never know, remember The Purple Rose of Cairo). I wouldn’t want to meet this guy – or his almost equally menacing father, also a prisoner, in real life unless they went through a major, life- and personality-changing therapy.
As the movie goes on there actually are attempts for a change. Eric joins a anger-management therapy group led by a volunteer (the film is based on the experiences by such a therapist). The father also shows signs of – I don’t know if I would call it “love”, but at least some kind of connection – as he makes efforts to protect his son.
Without giving away spoilers I can say as much as that there are glimpses of light here, moments when the constant presence of anger, threat and violence is changed for tenderness and closeness, if only for a few seconds. I’ve seen a few reviewers who are more cynical than I am sneer at it, but for me it was what turned me over and made it worth to endure all the punching, curled up as a piece of popcorn in my seat.
Starred Up (David Mackenzie, UK 2014) My rating: 4/5
PS I you think this film is more than you can stomach, I highly recommend a previous movie by the director David Mackenzie, namely Perfect Sense. It’s a poetic and unusual movie with a perfect blend of science fiction apocalypse and melancholic romance. It hasn’t received anywhere near as much appreciation as it should.