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In the language of Britain’s penal system, “starred up” is the term used for a young offender who gets prematurely moved to an adult prison. Designated “single cell, high risk,” 19-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) certainly looks like he’s ready for the big time. When the officers strip search him on arrival at his new digs, he goes through the drill with calm insouciance. On entering his cell, he immediately fashions a shank from a toothbrush and disposable razor, and conceals it in a light fixture.

Eric’s faculty for violence is certainly impressive. After beating another inmate unconscious over a simple misunderstanding, he prepares to tackle a group of armored guards by smothering himself in baby oil to make his body harder to grab. The altercation ends with him in handcuffs and on his knees, his teeth clamped around an officer’s private parts. Nice negotiating tactic, that.

The early scenes of “Starred Up” follow a pattern that’s familiar from other prison films: Hot-headed new arrival marks his turf, gets his ass kicked, et cetera. But director David Mackenzie’s electrifying drama quickly heads in some unexpected directions.

Starred Up (Na mo Naki Hei no Nakano O)
Rating
Run Time 106 minutes
Language English
Opens Oct. 10

It soon becomes clear that Eric has been moved to the same prison as his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a hardened con with an equally volatile temperament. (“Stop being a psychopath for a second, please,” a fellow inmate advises him at one point.) Their tense, conflicted relationship becomes the core of the drama: Neville is keen to see his boy make it out of the joint alive, but also doesn’t want him to upset the existing hierarchy or “fraternize” with other prisoners (especially — although he doesn’t say it out loud — the ones who aren’t white). When father and son hit the prison gym at the same time, Neville has to watch Eric spar with a black inmate, and there’s a crackle of jealousy in the air.

Dad also doesn’t seem sure what to make of it when Eric lands a spot in a group therapy session organized by Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), a volunteer “nonoperational officer” who clearly enjoys more respect from the inmates than he does from his colleagues.

Baumer’s efforts to teach prisoners to contain their anger seem to be having positive results, which might be why the other staff — notably the crooked deputy governor (Sam Spruell) — are doing their best to undermine him. As Eric observes, a little too astutely, “Say this therapy goes well, and it changes my life and I rehabilitate, and you lay it on for the next geezer, and it works for him. … Pretty soon, you’re out of a job.”

Jonathan Asser, the film’s first-time screenwriter, based the script on his own experiences of working as a prison therapist with violent criminals. The anger management sessions depicted in “Starred Up” — which could so easily have rung false — end up supplying some of its strongest scenes, without coming across as preachy. Asser’s coarse, slang-heavy dialogue also feels authentic, to the extent that non-British viewers may wish they had subtitles.

The film’s setting — shot entirely on location at a pair of prisons in Northern Ireland — helps supply an additional layer of realism. But perhaps its biggest asset is O’Connell himself. The 25-year-old actor has spoken guardedly about his rough upbringing in Derby, England, where he was issued a referral order as a young offender, and how his role in “Starred Up” wasn’t “much of a stretch” for him. You can see his point: His performance here has a raw, animalistic intensity that barely even feels like acting. It’s genuinely intimidating to watch, on a par with Ray Winstone’s turn as a thuggish young offender in Alan Clarke’s 1979 drama “Scum.”

It’s probably no coincidence that O’Connell, like Winstone, was a teenage boxer. A film this bruising needs a convincing bruiser for a star.

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