In the space of a week I've finally caught up to David Mackenzie's “Starred Up,” which premiered at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival and made its way to theaters and VOD via Tribeca Film last weekend, and Yann Demange's “'71,” which premiered at the Berlinale in February and finally resurfaced again in Telluride last week. The common denominator is actor Jack O'Connell, and with his major break-out project “Unbroken” set for release this December, the question becomes clear: what trajectory will this promising new career take?
The entertainment industry is always on the lookout for the next big thing. Actors like Sam Worthington, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Russell Crowe, Eric Bana and Tom Hardy have found themselves at this crossroads in the past (funny they always seem to be imports), boasting a few strong foreign indies and a huge Hollywood production on the horizon meant to send a career soaring. Sometimes they carve a major path through the business, trying to balance blockbuster success with smaller passion projects. Sometimes they struggle to reach even the heights of their breakthrough work. It's always a delicate thing to witness, because regardless of all the plotting and strategizing, you're watching an artist try to do the right thing by his or her conscience amid a torrent of expectation.
In “Starred Up,” O'Connell's first major coming out over a year ago, the actor signals a boisterous arrival. The film, thick with accent and dialect, is a fascinating study in behavior directed with a deft hand by Mackenzie and presented as a playground for O'Connell to show us what he has to offer. His Eric Love navigates the tense and explosive environment of prison, always poised to strike or defend, wise to its many terrible nuances. When first we meet him, he goes through the meticulous motions of forging and hiding a shiv, more important to him, surely, than the toothbrush that provides its base.
In “'71,” we catch up to O'Connell in strife-ridden Northern Ireland, along the Falls Road in Belfast that serves as the battle line between militant Catholics and Protestants. An English soldier sent to contain the escalating conflict, O'Connell's Gary Hook finds himself in a sticky situation when stranded behind enemy lines after a particularly violent altercation. The film plays out like “Judgment Night” meets “Bloody Sunday,” a thrilling night pursuit through dank city streets as Hook struggles to understand who, if anyone, he can trust. It's a very different opportunity than “Starred Up” in that it's an exercise in reaction rather than action. And O'Connell handles it with equal aplomb.
But most American audiences first got a look at the actor when he was plucked from British TV series “Skins” for a role in Noam Murro's spring release “300: Rise of an Empire.” And their next good look, certainly before most audiences catch up to the foreign one-two punch, will come in “Unbroken.” As late Olympian and WWII POW Louis Zamperini, O'Connell has not only a significant opportunity but a considerable responsibility in Angelina Jolie's film. It will be an epic positioned for Oscar glory by Universal Pictures and one that, at the end of this run, could find the 24-year-old actor in the thick of the awards conversation.
Where he goes from there will be the real curiosity. There will be a lot of choices on the table, plenty of scripts at his agent's office, and throughout, countless bad decisions to be made. Here's hoping he avoids those and finds his way to the more meaningful projects, unlike some of the stars who have been in a similar position before him. But that aforementioned balance of the high brow and the low brow is as strategic as anything else. O'Connell is at a point in his career where attracting a popular fan base is certainly part of the plan. He has what it takes to be a magnetic personality in this business, however, and I can only hope he enjoys the ride. Because it's going to be a wild one.