Writer-directors: Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer
Starring: Pilou Asbaek, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Roland Moller, Kim Winther, Jacob Gredsted, Omar Shargawi, Sune Norgaard
If part of the reason action movies resonate so broadly is because most of us are simply never going to have a chance to go Action Jackson, let alone drive a truck off a freeway ramp or swing by rope from a helicopter and kick open a skyscraper’s window, then prison dramas also provide vicarious entertainment at a comfortable remove. After all, we can enjoy all the cursing, fighting and vengeful plotting without fear of sacrificing our own behymens.
Case in point: the starkly titled R, a Danish prison flick that strongly recalls HBO’s The Wire and the recent, award-winning French import Un Prophete. The fiction film debut of directors Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer, and the winner of the Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film at the prestigious Gothenburg International Film Festival, the gritty and well acted R is strongly sketched enough to leave a mark with predisposed audiences, no matter its subtitles.
When undersized Rune (Pilou Asbaek) arrives in a rough-and-tumble Denmark prison to serve two years on an assault charge, he’s almost immediately and serially humiliated. After a strip-search, a fellow prisoner steals his mattress and another one threateningly instructs him to jump a Muslim inmate or face physical harm himself. Even when Rune complies, he doesn’t find peace. After several days in solitary confinement, he’s let out, but then habitually abused by Mason (Roland Moller), who takes away Rune’s pictures of his girlfriend and forces him to clean his cell. While not physically or sexually abused, those outcomes seem to loom as distinct possibilities, and at any rate Rune’s situation seems untenable.
Though there’s a careful racial division within the prison, in an effort to tamp down ethnic violence, Rune meets Rashid (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), a Muslim, doing some menial work in the kitchen, and forms an uneasy bond with him. Rune also discovers a passageway by which drugs and money can be passed from floor to floor, and forms a partnership with Rashid, using this information to better their respective circumstances. When Rashid shares the specifics of how the material is passed, however, it shatters what might have been a good thing. Rune finds himself forced to deal with the slimy Bazhir (Omar Shargawi), who could very easily be setting him up. As various threats come together, Rashid tries to confide in prison guard Kim (Kim Winther), but there are no easy answers or entirely safe hideaways in prison.
The story here is quite familiar and charts a rather expected path, more or less, whether one has seen a small handful of prison films or upwards of five dozen. Still, the precision and care with which it is rendered mark it more than some time-whiling throwaway. The ethnic and religious divisions, also on display in Un Prophete, are solidly elucidated without ever becoming overbearing or pretentious, and there are nice, relaxed parallels drawn between Rune and Rashid by way of the respective family members who come to visit them. They are doppelgangers, in a strange way, and the slow dawning of this point gives the movie a nice and somewhat unexpected depth.
The acting is also solid. Asbaek, who looks sort of like a European Rick Schroeder if he’d been hit in the face with Jimmy Fallon, possesses both a beguiling, asymmetrical visage and introverted charisma. He’s a bit like Michael Shannon, minus the darker intent. While his actions mark Rune more or less a man easily cowed if not an outright coward, Asbaek has the ability to communicate both swallowed fear and a certain savvy instinct for adaptability and survival, which greatly benefits his characterization and the movie as a whole.
Finally, there’s a clinician’s precision to R‘s packaging, inclusive of its music, production design and cinematography. Lindholm and Noer don’t overdo the grittiness with claustrophobic and/or jittery handheld camerawork, but instead give their performers wide berth and often shoot in masters, using this framing to paradoxically illuminate the tended isolation of the prisoners. Abetting this tack is the fact (rooted in European reality, one presumes) that the prison’s facilities are more like dorm rooms than anything glimpsed on some weekend “lockdown special” on MSNBC. Prisoners are confined to certain areas and supervised outdoors, but most are otherwise free to walk around their floors… and bring a sense of lingering menace with them, of course.
Written by: Brent Simon