Sunday, 23 March 2014

Starred Up

Have to admit I was not immediately familiar with the name David Mackenzie. On further investigation I was reminded that he helmed 2011’s highly-original Perfect Sense (do check it out). Starred Up has forced me to sit up and take notice of this talented director. I won’t forget his name again in a hurry.

The title refers to the rare process in which a juvenile delinquent is so problematic that he is ‘Starred Up’ from a young offenders unit to an adult prison. The problem with young Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is his unrelenting proclivity for violence. He is duly processed into the far-heavier-duty prison world and continues to fight both the system and its inmates like it was his true calling. The kicker here being that he’s been assigned to the same wing as his father, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn).

Striking a great balance between visceral thrills and thoughtful drama it’s powerful stuff. The film brilliantly captures a young buck’s instinct to lock horns. Eric does little in the way of thinking - he dives in fists first with little thought about the consequences. The transfer is like a promotion for him and he wears it like a badge of honour. This is a new and interesting spin on a tale set in lock-up. I always love the unpalatable (and often ingenious) minutia of a good prison flick and this has plenty. We’re shown in fine detail how easy it is to make a deadly shiv with just a cigarette lighter, a safety razor and a toothbrush. These kind of touches are fascinating and downright nasty.

The onus is very much on O’Connell and he impresses throughout. (He also looks like he’s done some serious working out to cut an authentic prison physique.) I was an instant fan of Ben Mendelsohn after seeing 2010’s Animal Kingdom and here the Australian actor more than convinces as a lifer London thug. Rupert Friend delivers as posho-out-to-do-good prison therapist. The group therapy scenes are unique for their intensity and unlike anything I’ve seen on screen - they involve a series of ferocious stand-offs with an intelligent commentary by each of the participants.

Mackenzie clearly has a nose for a good script. Jonathan Asser takes sole screenwriting credit. I don’t know what Asser’s background is but suspect he’s rubbed up against some right wrong’uns in his time and he’s put that experience to great use. Either that or he’s a master of research. The authenticity of the dialogue is terrifying and the writer displays a very cutting wit.

The film is not without its faults. There are a couple of slightly duff performances – from the prison staff - but thankfully they don’t feature too heavily. (I should add, the cons themselves are all superb.) However, the raw power of the film makes up for any such minor imperfections. Director Mackenzie gives us something tough, lurid and uncompromisingly British. He’s also achieved tremendous production value with a £2million budget. It’s both fantastically entertaining and a thought-provoking watch.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Blue Ruin

Once in a while a film comes out of nowhere that makes an unexpectedly big impression. This is one such film. Blue Ruin is a taught little thriller that gripped me from the off. Much of its power comes from keeping things simple. The tension is amped up considerably due to the lean narrative. It follows a sequence of dramatic events within a narrow timeline, and all in excruciating detail.

The ragged, heavily-bearded Dwight (Macon Blair) has nothing. He sleeps in his car, lives off junk from the beach in Delaware, and does the odd bit of breaking and entering. He is unexpectedly informed by the authorities that the man who killed his parents is due for release from jail. And with that, he journeys to Maryland in his battered Pontiac Bonneville preparing to become the unlikeliest of assassins.

In this, his second feature, writer and director Jeremy Saulnier delivers an unconventional thriller free from cliché. His startling original script is brought to realisation with fine precision. Saulnier says he set out to strike a balance between arthouse and genre piece, and he certainly fulfilled that remit. The first act is largely silent and has a beautiful melancholy. From then on, the dramatic thrust increases considerably. The action, when it happens, appears in short incendiary bursts. It works as both thoughtful indie and credible genre flick (and hopefully it will appeal to fans of both). Saulnier employed a Kickstarter campaign to complete the film – and the budgetary constraints lend credence to necessity being the mother of invention. Said invention brings to mind the Coens' debut Blood Simple. As with that film, Blue Ruin’s strengths lie in atmosphere and a damn fine screenplay.

Revenge is a classic cinematic more and one of which I’m very fond. Blue Ruin gives us a great take on that. The foundations of Dwight's cunning springs from his homelessness, which is such a fresh concept. Increasingly out of his depth, his survival depends on it. His demeanour – as the action progresses - becomes increasingly that of a wounded animal. The raw survival instinct associated with such a creature keeps him going and makes for a fantastically tense watch. The film centres on this wonderful, understated performance from Macon Blair - himself a childhood friend of the director. It’s a star-making turn and we are certainly going to see a lot more of the actor. Another nod must go to Devin Ratray. Fresh from his entertaining turn in Nebraska, he provides a touch of much-needed comicality amidst the excitement.  

A film like this makes me so excited that there are still stories out there to be told in new and interesting ways, and that there are film-makers, like Jeremy Saulnier, with the guts and determination to deliver.

Make sure you catch it on the big screen for full impact.