‘Starred Up’ For What: Jack O’Connell Is The New Tom Hardy

starred-up-jack-oconnell-shirtless The strong, silent type is a character that goes all the way back to the beginning of cinema… but that’s mostly because those movies were silent.

Still, stoic males have been front and center in countless dramas, especially those geared toward men. The grittier the movie, the quieter the antihero at the center of it all. Ryan Gosling probably spoke less in Drive and Only God Forgives combined than any character does in a single scene in a Woody Allen movie.

Tom Hardy is not unfamiliar with such roles — in Warrior and Lawless, for example — in which his brawn outmatches his verbal skills. Arguably, his evil beefcake character in The Dark Knight Rises should have done even less talking, since we could hardly tell what he was saying through that mask anyway.

Earlier this year, Hardy starred in Locke, in which he did nothing but talk — well, talk and drive — given that he was the only character who appeared on screen. Most movies named after their protagonists feel titularly uninspired, but in this one, Locke is pretty much all we get, so the title’s fitting. Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a Welshman overseeing a major construction project that he has abandoned in order to make his way to the hospital where a one-night stand is giving birth to his child. The problem is that Locke is otherwise involved with a wife and children who are waiting for him to come home and watch football, and he still loves them very much. In fact, he only slept with this mysterious “other woman” once — he felt sorry for her because she was so lonely. (While this sounds like a brilliant new entry in the Cheating Husband Excuse Handbook, Hardy actually sells that this reasoning is valid.) tom-hardy-locke-drivingLocke drives. And drives and drives and drives. And talks on the phone the whole way there. We’ve seen a number of thrillers that take place in a single location — from Lifeboat to Buried — but Locke is not a thriller. There is some suspense as to whether or not Ivan’s wife will abandon him when she learns the truth, whether or not Locke will be fired for choosing a near-stranger’s baby over his own work responsibilities, but that’s just drama. Usually, movies like this throw in everything but the kitchen sink as an obstacle to constantly up the ante and distract us from the fact that we’re not seeing a lot of change otherwise, but Locke doesn’t get a flat tire or run out of gas. Nothing like that. That’s probably a good thing, but it does risk leaving us rather underwhelmed at the end of it all, despite Hardy’s fully committed performance. (Imagine this movie with an unskilled actor, and it would be excruciating.) Locke is competently executed but not exactly tantalizingly conceived, and works mainly as another showcase for Tom Hardy.

The same could be said of The Drop, a more conventional drama based on a short story by Dennis Lehane, whose work has inspired more notable film adaptations like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island. The Drop has a workmanlike approach to its writing and direction — no single scene etches itself in our memory, and though there is some suspense as to what will happen (and to whom), it ultimately follows a pretty tried-and-true formula. It’s the sort of movie that seems destined to play on cable during the daytime, and I don’t even mean that as a bad thing. The one (accidentally) momentous thing about it is that it features the final performance of James Gandolfini, which is, perhaps, reason enough to see it.james-gandolfini-the-drop-stillIn The Drop, Hardy stars as the Brooklyn-raised bartender Bob Saginowski, who is tangentially involved in shady criminal dealings but not really interested in such things, as he reminds us, “I just tend the bar.” Bob is not a particularly smart man, yet he may be the wisest person in this movie since he’s the only one who wants nothing to do with double-crosses and robberies that will, inevitably, get most of those involved killed before the credits roll. He’s the typical stoic antihero, capable of swift violence but not necessarily prone to it, with a decent heart underneath it all. (He’s also religious, and in real life the sort of guy who would almost surely be a lot uglier than Tom Hardy, but that’s movies for ya.)

Early in the film, Bob encounters a bloodied dog in a trash can and rescues it from an unknown fate, an act which unwittingly inserts him into a love triangle with a man who may or may not be tied to his past. The owner of the trash can is Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace, who displays a soft spot for a broken puppy (and, let’s be honest, a soft spot for a broken guy who looks like Tom Hardy) and agrees to help Bob look after the little pit bull. Unfortunately, the dog was left for her intentionally by an ex-con named Eric Deeds, played by Matthias Schoenaerts of Rust And Bone (looking far less studly here, leaving hunk duties to Hardy in order to play the weasel of the piece). Deeds is Nadia’s ex-boyfriend, an unpredictable sociopath who begins stalking Bob in a number of nervy, unsettling encounters. Nadia is scarred, both literally and figuratively, by her druggie past with Eric, and he’s not about to let her move on to the next tough guy with a puppy.the-drop-noomi-rapace-matthis-schoenartsMeanwhile, Bob is also being watched by police detective Torres (Jon Ortiz) who is sniffing around an old murder case that involves Cousin Marv’s bar and, coincidentally, Eric Deeds. In the film’s opening moments, we learn that Cousin Marv’s is one of several drop locations for cash procured by the local Chechen (not Chechnian!) mafia. Things go south when Marv and Bob are robbed by a couple of young punks (one played by Animal Kingdom’s James Frecheville) who quickly find themselves in over their heads after they’ve messed with the wrong bar. It all builds to a pretty cool conclusion set on Super Bowl Sunday, and while the final twists aren’t exactly blindsiding, they’re probably not trying to be. Hardy is solid in the lead role, and Gandolfini goes out on a high note playing a much smaller-time criminal than Tony Soprano. (It’s almost jarring to see him cowed by other bad guys in a way that Tony never would have stood for.) Meanwhile, Ann Dowd has unfortunately little to do as Marv’s sister, and Rapace’s character never gets to be more than “the girl.”

I can’t help but feel this film is missing a truly shocking act of violence or two to help push it over the edge into something like greatness. The elements are there, but never quite stun or surprise. The Deeds character doesn’t quite pay off as he should; he’s this film’s wild card, the character who feels the freshest, and if his character’s impulsive violent tendencies had been pushed a bit further, it could have elevated The Drop above its fairly elemental level. As is, The Drop is just a drop in the ocean of crime dramas, but certainly not a bad one on any level. (As a bonus, there are plenty of scenes of Tom Hardy playing with a cute puppy, which is bound to be your cup of tea if you are a gay man or a straight woman.)

tom-hardy-puppy-noomi-rapace-the-drop-pitbull-dogTom Hardy still hasn’t been given a leading role in a major movie that quite deserves him. His Bane paled in comparison to Heath Ledger’s Joker (a flaw in the writing, not Hardy’s acting) and his other post-Bronson films, while smartly chosen, have all had the Drop-esque feeling that they should have been a drop better. (Again, nothing to do with the quality of his performances. Hardy’s always brought his A-game.) If Hardy were a decade younger, he almost surely would have been called upon to play the lead in David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, a prison drama about a boy who contains within him all the unpredictable fury of a caged animal. The role actually went to Jack O’Connell of the UK teen soap Skins, whose performance I will describe as fearless (even though that’s become a cliche). O’Connell plays Eric Love, a young inmate who gets “starred up” (AKA transferred into the adult prison system early).

As portrayed here, the British prison system has a few notable differences from the American one, but is every bit as unpleasant and gritty as we’ve been led to believe. Starred Up makes Orange Is The New Black look like Downton Abbey — we begin with Eric’s arrival at HM Wandsworth, and no other film I can think of captures the experience of being incarcerated so well. Eric says very little to begin with (another stoic leading man), but immediately upon his arrival he is already shrewdly making and hiding weapons in his claustrophobic cell, so we get a pretty good sense of what his life has been like up until this point. We may initially worry about this young man’s safety amongst larger, more dangerous-looking criminal types, but that goes out the window once we realize that Eric is his own worst enemy and much more likely to be the instigator of any violence on the horizon. He’s a feral animal, kicking and screaming and biting (or almost biting, in one of the film’s most memorable moments). What could turn a young boy into such a beast? Well, Starred Up answers that question with the fact that Eric’s father Neville Love is incarcerated in the exact same prison.starred-up-jack-oconnell-shirtless-rupert-friendNeville, played by Ben Mendelsohn (who I have never seen not breaking the law in a movie), is less the typical machismo prisoner and more of a wounded puppy who now turns dangerous when provoked. (The way Mendelsohn plays him, Neville seems just a notch or two above mentally handicapped.) We don’t get many specifics on why either Eric or Neville is in prison, but it was clearly in the cards for both almost from the get-go, and though Neville seems to have earned a certain degree of respect in this institution, it’s actually his son who has the ferocity and nerve that will either make him the top dog around these parts or get him killed for trying. Eric gets involved in an anger management program run by Oliver (Rupert Friend) that allows for some of the film’s most dynamic scenes of prison life, as hot-headed men spar over next to nothing to the point where they might kill each other. It’s immediately obvious how all of these guys ended up behind bars. Starred Up is a movie about rage in a cage; when you put a bunch of angry men in a box together and shake them up, the result is bound to be explosive. Eric Love has probably never known anything else. O’Connell’s performance is electric and quite probably star-making, while Mackenzie’s direction is expert and Jonathan Asser’s script is spare on eloquent dialogue but remarkably true-to-life (he did work in actual prisons, much like Oliver).

I’m not sure Starred Up quite packed the punch I was hoping for dramatically, but it’s admirably lean. Eric’s interactions with his fellow anger managers and his final confrontation with his father both satisfy dramatically (in a way that left me wanting even more satisfaction). The film has a dark streak of humor that adds just the right note of levity. I have a feeling that this one will be more rewarding on a second viewing (perhaps with subtitles, given the thick working class accents).

So watch out Tom Hardy — Jack O’Connell is coming for you, and he means business.


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