Starred Up’s Model Prisoner

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There are, for the most part, two types of movie prisoners. One is the societal menace – think Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs or Tom Hardy’s caged animal (based on Britain’s most notorious prisoner) in Bronson. Then there are the unjustly jailed, such as Michael Fassbender’s Irish protester in Hunger or yet another real-life figure, Mandela. What’s remarkable about Starred Up, a new British prison drama available in select theaters and via online streaming, is that the movie gives us a character who is both a menace and a human being of intrinsic worth.

Jack O’Connell plays Eric, a violent youth offender who has been “starred up” – transferred early to an adult facility. A seething, lethal force who nearly beats a fellow prisoner to death on his first day, Eric is also, in some ways, still a kid. We see it in the flickers of vulnerability he reveals when alone and in the instinctively submissive posture he takes toward his father (Ben Mendelsohn), who happens to be serving time in the same jail. For all the violence it depicts, the movie also pauses for moments of quiet reverie, including shots of Eric silhouetted against the sunlit window of his cell so that he resembles less a monster than a child of God.

When a persistent counselor convinces Eric to attend group therapy sessions, you may think the movie is on its way toward an inspirational, redemptive finale. But this is too clear-eyed of a film for cliche. Starred Up argues that Eric’s worth is not tied to his “progress” along a rehabilitation trajectory. His worth is central to his very existence. To put it in Christian terms, he matters because he bears the imago dei.

Starred Up, in fact, has a strikingly Gospel attitude about its central character. Yes, the Bible emphasizes justice. In fact, justice is necessary before we can have any hope of forgiveness or reconciliation. But in serving that justice, we must never lose sight of the image of God that a prisoner always bears. Starred Up is hugely instructive in this way: it’s true to the volatility, rage and brokenness of Eric, while also true to the imago dei that still resides within him.

This matters because we’re not simply dealing with a scenario dreamed up for the movies. As Rachel Livingston previously discussed in Capital Commentary, as of 2012, nearly 1,200 children in the United States were tried as adults every year. “When we try youth as adults and place them in adult prison facilities, we are robbing them of the chance for rehabilitation and restoration,” Livingston wrote.

And we rob them of this because we don’t see them as deserving of it. Or we erect a proper path for rehabilitation, and cast them away if they don’t succeed. In Belgium recently, this emphasis on “change” has resulted in a bizarre scenario in which Frank Van Den Bleeken, a convicted murderer and rapist, has requested to be euthanized because, according to an NPR report, he “hasn't seen any improvement in the psychological problems that have been linked to his crimes.” A Brussels court agreed.

Is this simply a logical expression of justice? If rehabilitation – to say nothing of forgiveness and reconciliation - seem impossible according to our societal timetables, do we pull the plug? In the context of Starred Up, I wonder. Like Eric, Frank Van Den Bleeken may have exhausted all of his earthly avenues of rehabilitation. Yet my hope is that Someone still cares about him. After all, our hope is that Someone still cares about us.

- Josh Larsen is editor of Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.