On the surface Starred Up might just seem like another gritty and depressing British crime film going through the motions of inflated masculinity, macho dialogue and heavy violence. Thankfully that isn’t the case here.

David Mackenzie’s film is indeed an exploration of masculinity and is shockingly violent at times but it’s a lot more than that. Featuring a stand-out performance by rising Brit star Jack O’Connell (Eden Lake, Harry Brown), this is an intense, uncompromising and visceral watch that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.

The plot centres on Eric Love (O’Connell), a troubled and violent 19-year-old prisoner who is transferred from a Young Offenders Institute to an adult prison. Once there he struggles to fit in and control his anger and violence issues while under the watchful eye of both the prisoner guards and fellow inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who also happens to be his father.

Owing something of a debt to that seminal British film Scum, Starred Up sits alongside Bronson and Hunger as one of the best prison dramas to come along in the years since. It throws you into a dangerous and volatile environment head first and never shies away from showing the harsh realities of the situation at hand.

It’s a film, as I said, about masculinity but also shrewdly explores themes of self-control, familial loyalty and recovery from deep-seated trauma and what that means in a prison environment, where freedom is all but eradicated and tensions run high between prisoners. Is the “enormous emotional trauma,” as Rupert Friend’s concerned counsellor states, a justifiable reason for Eric’s violent actions? Can it be stamped out, so to speak? The film intelligently explores all of these issues while at the same time never feeling preachy about it nor does it ever tip over into glorifying the horrendous behaviour on display.

Director David Mackenzie – who previous made the likes of Hallam Foe, Young Adam and the underrated Perfect Sense – conjures a feeling of claustrophobia and a heightened sense of tension throughout, a feeling that danger is around every corner (and it often is) that keeps you on your toes. Add to that the gritty cinematography by Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone, Albert Nobbs) and you have a film that feels unreservedly raw and scarily real.

There’s also a fascinating father/son relationship at the centre of the film. Fantastically played by O’Connell (who has screen presence and charisma to spare) and Mendelsohn (a consistently reliable character actor with a talent for pitch-perfect accents), it provides for a complex and unpredictable dynamic around which the film revolves, throwing up issues about how much blame lands at the feet of an absent father in how his violent son has turned out and whether it’s possible to make amends especially in such a harsh environment.

Mackenzie takes a potentially clichéd prison story and injects some real life into it, never taking the easy way out with how he handles its many complex issues. This is a superbly acted, expertly judged tough-as-nails drama that’s absolutely brimming with tension and always riveting, one that firmly establishes O’Connell as one of British cinema’s brightest young acting talents.

Starred Up is released in UK cinemas on March 21st.