In interviews, the actor Ben Mendelsohn has said that he was once typecast as a handsome young bloke while working in Australian TV during the ’80s. You’d never have guessed by the time 2010’s Animal Kingdom brought him to the attention of American casting directors. By then, he looked worked over: left out in the sun too long, with too many cigarettes and God knows how much hard living behind him. The talent was surely always there, but at last he had the face for it—a sad, hangdog villain’s face. Mendelsohn was soon cast as a junkie dognapper in Killing Them Softly, a heavy in The Dark Knight Rises, and a more kindly mentor to Ryan Gosling (but still an outlaw, of course) in The Place Beyond the Pines.
So follows Neville Love, a lifer in a British prison where 19-year-old Eric (Jack O’Connell) has been transferred from juvenile detention. Hard of body, soft of eyes, Nev doesn’t enter the picture for a while. This is basically Eric’s story: from violent young offender with a mysterious agenda to the talk circle led by volunteer counselor Oliver (Rupert Friend, from Homeland), then back around to Nev. Eric is prone to volcanic rages in a facility whose politics he barely understands (the wardens are playing inmates against one another). For very different reasons, Oliver and Nev try to steer him to nonviolence—or failing that, at least to refrain from revenge.
Starred Up is very much a “prison” movie, maybe too much so. Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) loves the raw stuff—sudden spasms of violence, cell phones hidden up the butt, gay prison buddies—and has as his screenwriter Jonathan Asser, a man who actually worked as a prison counselor (that is, the Oliver role). So while there’s great fidelity to prison lingo (sometimes obscured by the accents), the processes of cell inspections, lockdowns, weapon-making, petty humiliation, drug scores, and torture-by-bureaucracy eventually numbs the viewer. Amid all the brutality and scheming in Starred Up, there’s very little surprise—especially to anyone familiar with the old HBO prison series Oz. Too often, Starred Up feels like Mackenzie’s belated audition reel for that show. (Unless he’s never seen it, which is actually more damning.)
What saves the picture from its routine writing, however, are Mendelsohn’s conflicted Nev, a man without hope for himself who still seeks to be a protector; and O’Connell’s scary-innocent Eric, a kid conditioned to view the world as a constant contest between aggressor and victim. He’s a lab rat in this very tough-minded but finally unconvincing movie. O’Connell, a real discovery, will play the lead role in Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of the Laura Hillenbrand book Unbroken, due at Christmas. And Mendelsohn will keep plugging away at the villains, scalawags, and wastrels that’ve lately become his specialty. Unlike the short window for young, handsome leading men, this is a career path for the decades. I could see Mendelsohn taking the place of Harry Dean Stanton (now retired): the sage journeyman on the periphery of a scene who always gives it a crucial integrity. Movies better than this will also benefit from his calm, lethal presence. Opens Fri., Sept. 5 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 106 minutes.