Saturday 22 March 2014

Insiders: "Starred Up" and "The Unknown Known" (ST 23/03/14)

Starred Up (18) 106 mins ****
The Unknown Known (12A) 103 mins ***

David Mackenzie’s electric new drama Starred Up follows a very British tradition of films about prison life dating back to 1977’s Scum. Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe, Spread) has often appeared one of those cinematic gadabouts, too busy paying the bills – keeping one eye on this project, the other on financing the next – to make much in the way of a serious, affecting or otherwise noteworthy stand. Here, placed on lockdown, he finally commits himself to a place: to its bruised and fraying inhabitants, and the threat of violence that comes off them like the pungent smell of discarded socks and unwashed latrines.

Certain elements in former prison worker Jonathan Asser’s script suggest the influence of 2009’s widely admired French film A Prophet. Again, we have the cocky newcomer (Jack O’Connell) who arrives expecting trouble, from the guards, his fellow inmates, himself. Again, he crosses paths with an old lag, although here there’s a twist – for the inmate in question is the kid’s shambling father (Ben Mendelsohn, ending up where 2010’s Animal Kingdom suggested), which turns what’s intended as a mentoring relationship into a more Oedipal struggle still. How do you establish yourself as the daddy when your actual dad’s knocking about?

The potentially spoiling term “breakout role” may be off-limits when discussing prison movies, but Mackenzie’s film remains an initiation of sorts, and O’Connell – a graduate of TV’s Skins – emerges as every bit as essential to its world as, say, Ray Winstone was to Scum. From the very first scene, he’s stripped and prodded, poked and provoked by director and co-stars alike; and while the character’s explosive flare-ups register as natural and instinctive, increasingly we get glimpses of the scared little boy cowering behind the front, who realises he’s now lost in the system, and in desperate need of guidance.

What’s around him is alert indeed to the ragged and unpredictable textures of prison life. Scenes are hurled at the viewer, coiled, twitchy and sketchy; they could kick off in any direction at any point. If Starred Up does have a centre, it’s the protagonist’s group therapy sessions, which Mackenzie allows to play out almost like an actors’ workshop: here, the staff – led by Rupert Friend’s glowering shrink – are revealed as just as highly strung as the inmates, and we sense everybody in the room trying to figure out a future not just for themselves, but for the film entire.

I won’t spoil anything about the second half, which walks a sharpened knife-edge between life and death, holding out the possibility of both redemption and annihilation, but where A Prophet rather cheered its hero’s eventual outmuscling of the criminal old guard, Mackenzie and Asser instead dig deeper, assiduously removing their narrative of any questionable glamour or triumph. Their film presents us with an everyday scrap for survival at the very bottom of the food chain – and it’s all the more compelling for it.

In 2003, with the Bush administration becoming entrenched in the Middle East, documentarist Errol Morris sat down with former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and came up with The Fog of War, one of the best films ever made about the idiosyncrasies of American foreign policy. A decade on, Morris has made a film that serves as both sequel and footnote: The Unknown Known, a genial chinwag with Donald Rumsfeld about the thousands of memos the subject dictated over the course of his 40-year Washington career.

Rumsfeld, we’re reminded, was a Nixon protégé, and you might be tempted to interpret Morris’s film as a lesson in what US politics inherited from the Watergate era: chiefly, a dormant paranoia gene, reawakened on September 11, 2001. (You’d be paranoid too, if somebody attempted to fly a commercial jetliner into your workspace.) What’s notable is how Rumsfeld promulgates that paranoia, in language that twists around on itself, denying any and all surety. “All generalisations are false, including this one.” “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Say what?

While Morris never pushes his interviewee too hard – if Rumsfeld walks, he takes the film with him – he has at least recognised there might be a certain fascination in watching this semantics whizz talk his way around, say, any acceptance of responsibility for the treatment of Guantanamo internees. What ends up being documented here is the verbal obfuscation that formed an essential component of this particular war’s fog – even as it allows Rumsfeld, emerging from these 100 minutes both known and yet strangely unknown, to get away with it all over again.

Starred Up is in cinemas nationwide; The Unknown Known is in selected cinemas.

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