Two violent films, seen within 24 hours of one another. Starred Up is out this week on DVD. Joe is in cinemas. The first, from debuting writer Jonathan Asser – who, as a psychotherapist who’s worked with prisoners and young offenders, knows of which he speaks – is a prison drama. And already you’re thinking: oh no, not another prison drama. It’s true, the genre has long since hardened into if not cliché, certainly formality. But Starred Up – and you’ve heard this before, but stick with me – is different.
Yes, it resonates with the clanging of metal doors and gates, and makeshift weapons are furtively manufactured from toothbrushes and razor blades, and everyone says “fuck” or “cunt”, and there’s a sadistic, unsmiling deputy governor whose faith in rehabilitation is not devout, and a prisoner hierarchy with an unlikely, weaselly geezer at the top, and lags walk around in a circle in the exercise yard, but … it’s not about prison, no more than Hunger or Un prophète were about prison. It’s about a father and son.
Jack O’Connell, whom I never really saw in Skins but appreciated in Chris Chibnall’s United and James Moran’s Tower Block, is the son, and Ben Mendelsohn, one of the Aussie breakout stars of Animal Kingdom and brilliant in supporting roles in Killing Them Softy and Girls, is the father. The son, Eric Love (brilliant name), has been “starred up”, that is, moved from a young offenders’ institution to a grown-ups’ prison, where his dad, Neville, has carved out a functional life for himself, nearer to the top of the tree than the bottom, but he’s no Mr Big. He and his son have been estranged for most of Eric’s life, who grew up in care. He’s still in care. So is Neville.
What differentiates Starred Up – the best work from Scottish director David Mackenzie since the brooding and alarming Young Adam (although I’ve enjoyed plenty of his commercially under-loved work) – is that from the first scene we glimpse the human being under the self-generated armour of Eric’s cocksure invincibility when, after the long walk through the prison induction system to his cell, the door is shut on him and he allows his face and posture to retract from self-preservation and convey sadness, frustration and fallibility. It’s incredible acting from O’Connell (this film will make him if he isn’t made already), and infuses the rest of the film with depth.
Eric is a coiled spring of curtailed ambition whose reflex reaction is to lash out (a request for the borrow of a lighter results in a brutal attack very early on), which makes his introduction to a modest therapy group run by Rupert Friend all the more jarring and counterintuitive. This is not a film about fairytale transformations, but the way Eric’s story plays out is not predictable. Nor is the way the father-son reunification unfolds. Mendelsohn plays Neville as recalcitrant and proud – also a man who thinks with his fists and would clearly have parented with slaps had he actually attempted to do so – but not without a heart. Friend is a chameleonic actor (proven by his transformation into an American CIA officer in Homeland) who is utterly believable from word one as this voluntary shrink whose commitment to rehabilitation is everything Sam Spruell’s cold governor’s isn’t. A peacemaking speech he makes later on in the story where he calls the black prisoners in his group “black cunts” and Eric “a white cunt … I’m a cunt, we’re all cunts” is far more profound than it sounds.
Asser’s screenplay, worked through over a number of years, with the help of many professionals at workshops – to whom he pays sincere tribute in interview – was also honed during the tight 24-day location shoot at Belfast’s former Crumlin Road Prison and the infamous Maze, with Mendelsohn particularly involved in fine-tuning his character. All of this shows in the incredible depth throughout, even in exchanges that seem trite or functional. And there’s a terrifying stand-up stand-off in the therapy group that’s as exquisitely and exactingly choreographed by Mackenzie as a dance routine.
However, and here’s why I suspect Starred Up only showed for a week at my local arthouse in March and then disappeared: it’s defiantly repellent stuff. Strong meat. Hard on the ears as well as the eyes. A film I love, but not a film I would recommend to anybody with a weak constitution. A low-level threat of violence persists throughout the entire 106-minute running time. It’s not if, but when it explodes. The violence is not as explicit as it seems (that’s clever directing and editing), but the sheer physical force with which it erupts is quite distressing. Blades, table legs, teeth, fists, all are pressed into service. Fathers and surrogate fathers are attacked by their sons and surrogate sons, and their sons and surrogate sons are beaten back. It’s tactile-Oedipal. And they’re “all cunts”. (It was a hot evening when we watched the DVD but we eventually had to close the skylights for fear of our neighbours being offended by the language.)
I appreciate that the violence inherent in the system is a valid subject for fiction, and Starred Up is a supremely intelligent depiction of that violence. But I would actually warn people from watching it. You have been warned. (Actually, I found myself wholeheartedly evangelising it to a woman I met at the Inbetweeners 2 aftershow and literally gave that warning.)
I’d read a lot of praise for Joe, the new film from director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express – that’s some CV), adapted by Gary Hawkins from the 1991 novel I’ve never heard of by Mississippian Larry Brown (about whom Hawkins once made a documentary). It’s also violent. It’s also about fathers and sons, and surrogate fathers and sons. It’s also tactile-Oedipal, and a lesson in restraint. What a coincidence.
It’s also very different. Shot in areas around Austin in Central Texas, it’s not quite a Southern Gothic, although the relationship between Tye Sheridan’s 15-year-old grown-up Gary and his good-for-nothin’ dad Wade, played with unadulterated authenticity by non-actor and actual alcoholic drifter Gary Poulter (who died after filming), is a dark entry indeed. In the very first scene, Gary berates his wizened soak of a father without any fear until Wade slaps him, hard, around the face, and retreats to his preferred cycle of guzzling spirit and passing out. Gary’s surrogate father turns out to be Joe, an ex-con played with admirable restraint by Nic Cage – a restraint that has earned him endless plaudits, although it turns out that this is all relative.
Joe runs a gang of casual workers – all black – whose task it is to literally poison trees to make way for a corporate re-planting, a job they merrily do without gloves, let alone masks. But their camaraderie and joshing are genuine and inspiring, and there’s two-way respect between the workers and their genial employer. Everyone knows Joe has “a past”, and he himself explains that “restraint” keeps him from “hurting people” and keeps him out of jail. He drinks, loves his guard-dog (who lives in the crawlspace under his home, always tethered), and uses prostitutes. He also knows his way around skinning and butchering a deer. He’s more than a little bit country.
Violence erupts more than once, and again, that threat lingers. It’s difficult to relax into the scenes of socialising and ball-breaking, as bad things are always round the corner. The director paints his pictures in dark greens, buff browns and queasy yellows, but finds beauty in the way sunlight bounces off surfaces, or through a glugged bottle of rose wine. Coincidentally, Mackenzie creates a red light in Eric’s cell when material is fixed up over the only window – an effect akin to that which Green conjures for the brothel. It ain’t pretty, this backwoods world he depicts, but it is not without natural beauty, perhaps best personified by a box bridge (a key location) that’s being gradually wrapped in vine. You can poison nature at the behest of a corporation, but it always finds a way. Perhaps, Joe seems to be saying, male violence is a natural state, and restraint is unnatural.
The characters in Starred Up are in a physical prison. In Joe, they’re out in the wide open spaces; there are worse places to work than a forest, even if you’re poisoning it, but it still feels like a high-viz chain-gang, especially as the workforce is exclusively African-American. When hardworking, personable Gary and – briefly – the workshy Wade join the herbicide detail, they are in the minority. But there’s little to elevate Wade from the bottom of any social heap: he’s cruel, selfish, vicious and callow. When he launches into an implausible breakdancing routine, it is the only ray of humanity we are privileged to see. (We must imagine that Poulter, who apparently enjoyed acting in the film, started a Twitter account and had been in and out of rehab, was more redeemable than Wade.)
Gary’s relationship with his father is less complex than Eric’s with Neville. Gary is the de facto adult, but Wade is dominant through threat of violence (and actual enaction of violence); we barely see the submissive mother, who also seems to drink, and Gary’s sister appears to have been rendered mute by family life. He’s the one who must go out and earn money (he saves to buy a truck from his new role model, Joe). I won’t go into the plot, as you may wish to see it, but I have to say, I felt Joe was over-praised. I felt like I’d seen all this before. Calling a drama noir doesn’t instantly bestow it with class. Some of the story is too neat – the way it’s bookended, for instance – some of it is too messy. There’s no resolution to some strands (such as Joe’s relationship with an ex who sort of moves in with him and then just moves out), and too much resolution to others (a stand-off that brings Joe’s relationship with the local law enforcement to a head).
There’s a scene in Joe that’s more explicitly violent than even the most violent scene in Starred Up. (People in the cinema audibly groaned and said “No!” when it happened.) I’m not against violence artistically, or politically, but I can personally do without seeing a skull being caved in, or a cheek slashed with a blade. There are a lot of movies about violence. We live in a violent world. Hundreds of men, women and children are killed every day in acts of violence – albeit much of it long-range, and not perpetrated with metal bars on bone – and these acts do not act as neat catalysts for dramatic resolutions.
But I can tell you, I was in the mood to watch The Inbetweeners 2 last night.