R: Hit First, Hit Hardest
Lacking the spirituality of A Prophet, the warmth of The Shawshank Redemption, the rabid fun of Mesrine, the gritty reality of Carandiru or the visceral, jacked-up, balls-out action of Cell 211, Danish prison drama R is a typically Scandinavian entry in the pantheon of prison movies; cold, brutal and unrelentingly bleak. A lot like Denmark really.
A nasty short, sharp, shock to the system which revisits all the usual cliches of prison movies; the beatings, the scaldings, the drug dealing, the racial tension, the paranoia, the brutality but, surprisingly, little in the way of graphic male rape, R paints a very different picture of incarceration to that of Porridge.
Danish Eminem-alike Rune (Pilou Asbœk) is the doomed young rookie convict who finds himself having to negotiate the dangerous waters of Copenhagen’s notorious Horsens Prison after being sentenced to two years for assault with a knife. Out of his depth and surrounded by tattooed, skinheaded, Cro-Magnon Vikings, Rune knows the score; he’s fresh meat, the only way he’s going to survive is by keeping his head down, swallowing his pride and taking whatever humiliation is doled out by the prison’s alpha males. As is traditional in prison movies, he is forced to makes his bones by beating up another inmate and gains a measure of acceptance in the harsh jailhouse hierarchy. Finding a friend and business partner in Rashid (Dulfikar Al-Jabouri), a young Muslim prisoner, Rune bucks the prison’s strict racial divide, going into business for himself, he and Rashid supplying drugs to the jail’s Arabs. But, older, more experienced lags are jealously eyeing his lucrative market and, in a world where treachery and betrayal are daily currency, just who can Rune trust?
Oppressively claustrophobic, the film eschews music, filling the soundtrack instead with the clank and clang of metal cell doors, the constant hum of muffled conversations, the daily minutiae of prison life. Essentially shadows of each other, Rune and Rashid are linked neither by their friendship or their business partnership but by their shared status as victim; both men are at the bottom of the food chain, prey for the predators, a fact that becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on and their situations become increasingly desperate.
Ratcheting up the tension, writer/directors Tobias Lindholm & Michael Noer keep their audience as much in the dark as their protagonists, creating an almost unbearable state of expectant fear as information is revealed to us as it’s revealed to Rune, most of the film’s more disturbing moments occurring in neutral areas when we least expect it, brutal violence erupting from nowhere.
Treading very familiar waters to every other prison flick you’ve ever seen, R makes Roy Clarke’s classic Scum look as cheerful and life affirming as the cast of Glee doing Jailhouse Rock. If Ronnie Barker's Fletcher had done his time in Denmark he'd probably have been raped, beaten and had boiling oil thrown in his face in the 1st week. Uncompromising and brutal, R is closer to punishment than entertainment.
Tobias Lindholm & Michael Noer
Pilou Asbœk, Dulfi Al-Jaburi, Kim Winther, Roland Møller, Jacob Gredsted, Omar Shargawi
Tobias Lindholm & Michael Noer