The process of de-humanising begins from the first frame. Eric (Jack O’Connell) is moved like a pawn, treated like a loon and reduced to a series of louse-ridden tick boxes.
Eric gives nothing away. He is young but he’s learnt the merits of the poker face. Is he the fresh fish ready to blub his newbie night away, or is he familiar with the demerits of his lifestyle choice?
Then the door slams shut on his corporation pigeon hole and he is straight into his tradecraft. The swift construction of a razor blade shank, the tooth brush screwdriver; the rigid iron bars slam down across his babyface.
We are strangers in this place but it turns out he is a prowling familiar. Only this time something is different. He is “starred up” – sent from a juvenile facility to adult prison because of his explosive, self-destructive violence.
They want no trouble in this prison because trouble disrupts drug deals and ruffles hierarchies. Neither inmates or screws want Eric to be Eric, although experience lowers expectations to sewer level.
So he is appointed a mentor, a bouncer, an educator. The man chosen is “direct love” – his deadbeat dad Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who is big shot behind bars but an abject failure in his son’s eyes.
Besides, Eric is planning to do his own thing – assert his authority, take what he wants, grind out the beatings, given and received, and concede not an inch.
The presence of his father serves to rile, not cool.
David Mackenzie’s film of Eric’s story is a bleak, explosive exploration of a post-apocalyptic world in our midst, a world without civilisation, where the strongest survive and there are no rules except you don’t insult the mothers.
Oliver (Homeland’s Rupert Friend) is the out-of-his-depth, courageous do-gooder in the mix, bringing these testosterone-fuelled time bombs together to dampen the fuse. Eric and latterly Neville prowl round Oliver like he’s alien – selfless and free and untroubled by ego, he is their opposite, a challenge to their way of life.
“Your son and I are on a journey together,” he tells Nev.
The story slowly, painfully, violently heads towards a breakthrough of sorts. Violent, inevitably, but this a breakthrough on the prisoner’s terms. Father and son find reconciliation, although once the credits roll they still face a lifetime behind bars.
Jack O’Connell is raw and charismatic as Eric. With an animal grace and power, this love child of Dermot O’Leary and Danny Dyer is capable of anything in any given moment offering no clue the second before what that might be.
And if the ending is a tad corny, it is not compromised. Besides, something close to redemption is essential to re-acclimatise the audience to the civilised world from whose sanctuary they have been torn for a brutal 106mins.