Starred Up places a lens on an aspect of society that many of us don’t like to think about, and that is the incarceration system. We don’t like to think about criminals or what happens behind bars, because we think of them as dangerous and potentially deserving of whatever happens where we cannot see. Starred Up takes a definite stance against prisoner abuse, and goes so far as to demonstrate that a philosophy of punishment only further entrenches anti-authority mindsets in violent offenders. And yet, despite its message that rehabilitation is the best method by which to handle prisoners, the film never shies away from the fact that its characters are violent criminals. Not criminals with hearts of gold. Not criminals with any sort of redemptive arc where a happy ending shows them reentering society. These are just criminals with antisocial and pathological communication issues, who react to their problems with violence rather than words, making them at once sympathetic yet never once worthy of the label “good.”
Our protagonist is Eric, a juvenile offender so violent that he had to be removed from the juvenile detention facility and entered into an adult prison. Our first glances at him are a casual admittance to the prison, as he has been through this all before multiple times, and upon entering his cell, the first thing he does is fashion a shiv from a toothbrush and razor. Multiple violent episodes follow, almost all out of instinct and self-defense, and yet he is persistently treated as a purposeful offender by the prison staff. Only one person wishes to help him with his impulses rather than punish him for them, and that is the prison’s counselor, a state-mandated position whom the rest of the staff believes coddles the prisoners. And yet, the only times we see Eric really come to terms with his anger and his outbursts are when in the counselor’s presence, hinting at a therapeutic process that the other conditions of prison life make it hard for Eric to fully realize.
In the same prison is Eric’s father, convicted of a life sentence and a constant absentee from his son’s life. It is obvious from the moment the two set eyes on one another that there are a plethora of emotions they wish to express, and yet are unable to due to their poor communication skills. Violence is the only way they have been conditioned to handle the most remotely uncomfortable emotions, and the crux of the film’s character-centric arc is watching to two struggle to relate as Eric begins to integrate the counselor’s advice into his behavioral patterns.
Starred Up admittedly touches upon a subject that I am personally passionate about, so I’m probably more willing than many to overlook some of the film’s drier dialogue or underdeveloped supporting cast. However, just because a film is flawed does not mean it’s not worth seeing, and Starred Up is most assuredly worth your attention. It shines a light on some of the most reprehensible people in our society and asks the question of whether they deserve to be treated like people, and whether we reinforce undesirable behavior by treating them as subhuman. This is powerful stuff, and I whole-heartedly recommend this film to anyone and everyone.