Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon) Talks David Mackenzie’s Starred Up

We mostly know about prison from films or TV, and this tough movie about life inside teaches us another thing: Jack O'Connell is a real movie star.

I don’t really know anything about prison other than what I’ve learned from movies and television. Incarceration obviously looks very different from one film to the next — The Shawshank Redemption vs. The Green Mile. Cool Hand Luke vs. Hunger. The Rock vs. A Prophet. A similarly diverse spectrum colors my TV edification on the matter, from a few scarring episodes of Oz when I was a teenager to, more recently, Orange is the New Black and Rectify. Despite these disparate approaches, however, there are a few things that I inevitably seem to encounter over and over again, no matter who the director or what the subject matter or era.

These are mostly banal and obvious:

1) Prison is bad and mostly terrible and dehumanizing.
2) It’s dirty and violent in every possible way — physically, mentally, sexually and emotionally.
3) It’s a microcosm of the power struggles that dominate all societal life, especially ours on the “outside.” Amplified as they are by this closed system, we could probably learn something about society at large if we paid any attention at all to what happens within these walls.
4) Even amidst these often awful conditions, there are always instances of great humanity to be found. Individuals connecting with individuals. Ich und du.

Most people would probably add:

5) I never want to go there.

I would add that too, but there’s a weird glamorization that I seem to have gleaned from entertainment’s portrayals of prison, exactly the kind of thing that worries parents and consumes censors, so I would add an asterisk:

5) I never want to go there.*
*but if I did, I’d probably excel there, rising up to be some kind of shot-caller megalomaniac queen with a tattoo reading “innocentia” scrawled across the back of my neck.

David Mackenzie’s Starred Up didn’t really teach me anything new about prison or human interaction, but it did hit all of my above list, including my asterisk, in a gritty, uncomfortable-to-watch, apparently realistic way. (It also made me feel that UK prisons, even for these violent offenders, are way cushier than their American, Irish or even French (“sure you can have a work furlough”) counterparts. UK inmates can wear sweats like normal people? They’re allowed to keep their shoelaces for possible suicide or murder? You can bring a razor in? Also: what lovely architecture.)

Ben Mendelsohn is always awesome. Here he plays a wizened, crafty convict who happens to be the father of the titular young man who’s been “starred up” from juvie. There’s a creeping violence in the way Mendelsohn bounces through the prison; he’s perfect in his movement, his desperate gaze. The moment when he unabashedly admits that the man he shares his cell with is his lover, because “it’s prison,” bubbles with matter-of-fact, gentle, sad-clown humor. Mackenzie’s decision to stay in the wide as long as he does captures all the uneasy tension swishing around the cell. The sound design creates an uneasy feeling of the small tortures of confinement — deafening sounds of chains and gates next to complete, gaping silence within the locked cells. Parts of the script make certain emotional jumps to service plot progression and character development that don’t feel quite earned. This is disappointing, but doesn’t ultimately take away from the effectiveness of the film or the sheer tragedy of incarcerated father and son locked in their familial cycle of violence. The emotional ending to their relationship, culminating with their heads bumping together in hopeless, raw love, is incredibly emotionally jarring — this is a film about bodies, about flesh.

Which leads me to Jack O’Connell.

After premiering my first feature, Honeymoon, at SXSW this past year, I was fortunate to have it also play at the Tribeca Film Festival. This is where I first heard about Starred Up. The buzz surrounding Mackenzie’s film was great, but it was loudest around its star, Jack O’Connell, and he’s the reason I wanted to see this film. He seems to be one of those young actors that penetrates the Hollywood zeitgeist and suddenly lights up the blogosphere and every casting list. Who is he? Where did he come from? The next Russell Crowe? (What does that mean?) Star of Angelina Jolie’s upcoming release, Unbroken. A little IMDbing reminded me that he was in Eden Lake. I remember being impressed by the teens in that film though, admittedly, when I saw it a few years ago, I was mostly drawn in by Michael Fassbender.

O’Connell’s performance in Starred Up is completely physical. He plays Eric, the youthful offender who is transferred early to an adult prison because of his exceptionally violent behavior. His performance feels, yes, akin to a caged animal, but swirling with elements of a teenage boy ravaged by hormones and a primal want and need of masculinity. He throws himself around the adult prison with strength and virility and a healthy dose of swagger. He’s in that in-between place where he looks like a man, but inside is still the hurt little boy who justifiably destroyed the face of a paedo who indulged in his young body while his dad was too busy in the slammer.

I thought a lot about gender when casting Honeymoon. My film doesn’t exactly subvert traditional gender roles, but I like to think that the two main characters, newlyweds Paul and Bea, present a more nuanced, varied portrayal of a man and woman than is usually found in horror movies. When I cast the role of Paul, I received page after page of actor submissions from talent agencies.

Cookiecutter faces. Shiny. Coiffed.
They overwhelmingly looked like automatons trying to be real human men.
None of this was what I needed. None of them was Paul. I was lucky enough to find Harry Treadaway, whose immense talent molds every bit of him into a new character whenever he steps into a role. There is nothing ordinary or expected about him, which is unnerving and spectacular.

But back to O’Connell.

I don’t yet know if he’s immensely talented or just blessed with the physicality and presence that recalls movie stars of the days of yore — John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Paul Newman.

But O’Connell looks real. Feels real. A weird embodiment of a post-World War II conception of man. A man who can build things. A man who can fight and drink and pick you up and fuck you against the wall.

Hollywood seems desperate for this, as do audiences all hungry for cowboys and superheroes.

I don’t know what we’re missing that makes us yearn for these fairy tales, but I want it too.

Leigh Janiak is a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Her first feature film, Honeymoon, starring Game of Thrones‘ Rose Leslie and Penny Dreadful‘s Harry Treadaway premiered at SXSW this past spring and continues to play at festivals around the world, including the Tribeca Film Festival and the Edinburgh Film Festival. Magnet released the movie this past fall.