Good DILF Hunting

8.28.2014

By Armond White

Starred Up, starring Jack O’Connell, turns prison reform into P.C. porn

There's been lots of talk recently decrying “the prison industrial complex,” and it's typified by a new British film oddly titled Starred Up. Its immediate appeal, despite political exposé pretense, resembles the Jeff Stryker porn movie Powertool: showcasing men behind bars with riffs on various styles of pent-up sexual tension. This lust-over-law vision by arty director David Mackenzie is a disgrace to the prison reform genre and should rightly be understood as belonging to a different tradition.

Young Eric Love (Skins actor Jack O’Connell) is a wiry, abused street youth who just skirts juvenile age and so is sent to adult prison where he’s introduced via a strip search not unlike the rectal examination in A Clockwork Orange. Orange being the new melodrama, Starred Up’s porn gimmick is that Eric wants to be incarcerated: He’s got daddy issues and is the only way to get close to his deadbeat father Neville, (the emotive Ben Mendelsohn) whose neglect is part of the reason Eric went bad.

We’re not in Oz anymore. The uncanny social reflection of Tom Fontana’s mind-blowing HBO prison series Oz (1999-2003) which ingeniously combined soap opera narrative and sexual titillation with tabloid immediacy—and very compelling, unexpected morality lessons—is missing from Starred Up. In a 2002 New York Press interview, Fontana told me he based the Oz series on his outrage at the conditions that led to the 1972 Attica prison uprising, but Mackenzie’s art-house prurience matches his down-and-dirty Ewan McGregor-Tilda Swinton sex film Young Adam from 2003.

Mackenzie’s inmates dress in gray sweats, good for showing off gym-hard haunches, capacious crotches upfront add titillating mystery. The visual innuendo recalls the 1972 Blaxploitation film I Escaped from Devil’s Island (just released on Blu-Ray by Shout Factory) where Jim Brown and Christopher George went commando in rough trade heroics and humiliations, disguising the social reform pretense (a routine perfected in American International’s women’s prison flick The Big Bird Cage). But Starred Up’s cynical, David Fincher-style yellow-toned motif and high-powered edits expose Mackenzie’s lack of, uh, conviction.

Allegory goes wrong in Jonathan Asser's script, confusing Eric’s authority problems and father complex, putting both in overdrive (Powertool again). S&M relationships pile-up, scenes of tea room tension between a warder and social worker, even an incestuous mano a mano climax uncork the Oedipal pressure with the release of a homophobic rant when Eric discovers that his swaggering, racist dad—a lifer—has a comely, very intimate cell mate, Hassan (Anthony Welsh, instantly evoking the Beecher-Keller romance in Oz). “I’ll tell you what you are mate, a fucking prison poof. "You’d like a nice tight, hairy asshole? Get your fucking queer hands off me!” is the son’s blasphemous offense to his father.

Yet, Starred Up’s intentions display the latest political correctness. Eric is told: “Starred-up’ [a prison tattoo] means you’re a leader. You attack people for a principle. It means you’ve got pride.” That's a strange approach to the crisis of young offenders who grow up with bad role models. Eric’s been trained to kill and not by his absentee dad. Mackenzie and Asser avoid the social and cultural failings that entrap young men although they eroticize the disaster—particularly in gripe sessions where pale-white Eric meets the majority black prisoners, all without backstories.

In group therapy, the brothers are always figures of sexual potency and spiritual strength, even after all the deprivation and degradation from the outside system that puts them inside. Mackenzie’s P.C. approach draws sanctimony from hypermasculine black clichés (at least Jim Brown’s potency in Devil’s Island was casual and Adebisi in Oz was unforgettable). This routine of “dignity” is the flip side of disrespect. “I feel like a cunt every day,” Eric says in crude solidarity.

So Starred Up, finally, is social safety-net porn: All kinds of hot guys sacrificing themselves, emulating the film industry’s usual purpose: to save the idealized Good DILF Hunting white kid (who O’Connell portrays with bravado). Mackenzie’s sexual tease is a giveaway; his arty conceit is out of proportion to real prison problems American saw in Victor Buhler’s documentary Rikers High. When a female prison authority warns Eric’s social worker, “You need to get a hold of yourself because you are far too involved!” one can’t help imaging Mackenzie watching Powertool—and taking notes.

Starred Up is currently in select theaters. Watch the trailer below:

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