Starred-Up: Intense Family-Prison Drama, Starring Jack (Unbroken) O’Connell

The handsome and gifted British actor Jack O’Connell, better known for playing the lead in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, gives a strong performance in this intense prison melodrama of a dysfunctional family that boasts the dimensions of a Greek tragedy.

It’s hard to explain why Starred Up, a gritty prison drama, well directed by Jonathan Asser, failed so miserably at the box office.  Was it the timing of its release, in August, or lack of savvy marketing by its distributor, Tribeca Films.

Eric (O’Connell), an arrogant and violent youth, is prematurely transferred to the same adult prison facility as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn).  His explosive temper makes him an easy target by both prison authorities and fellow inmates, not to mention the fact that his volatile relationship with his father has crossed the breaking point.

Things change, when  Eric is approached by a volunteer psychotherapist (Rupert Friend), who runs an anger management program for prisoners. Torn between gang politics and prison corruption,  Eric fights for his daily survival and perhaps his own life.

Complicating matters is the uncertainty of whether his father is a friend, out there to protect him, or an adversary wishing to punishing.

The film benefits immensely from the insider’s view of scribe Asser, a prison system therapist, who imbues his tragedy with authentic slang and behavior.

Admittedly harsh and grip, Starred Up offers an uncompromising portrait of a dehumanizing life behind bars, adding a major panel to the genre of prison drama.

The film is tautly helmed (not one minute is wasted) by David Mackenzie, a talented, vastly underestimated director, who coaxes terrific performances from his two male leads.

Running time: 106 minutes