As inventors know, good ideas sometimes surface simultaneously in multiple places, and the first to get the patent wins. Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer, co-helmers of the raw Danish prison drama “R,” may find it frustrating to open in the wake of Jacques Audiard’s much-lauded “A Prophet,” which their pic resembles in many ways. Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that “Prophet’s” success will increase the market-share for realistic, violent foreign films about young men learning to navigate life behind bars, no matter how well made. Although impressive, “R” (opening locally in April) is unlikely to break out beyond fests and ancillary.
The winner of Gothenburg’s Nordic competition, “R” stands for Rune (Pilou Asbaek, in a courageous, at times literally naked perf), a cocky, not-too-bright, good-looking twentysomething, placed in a hardcore ward where the other cons are twice his size. “R” also stands for Rashid (Dulfi al-Jaburi), a young Muslim prisoner who becomes Rune’s friend and betrayer.
The two newbies provide fresh prey for the gangs that rule the prison, forced to do their bidding for fear of being “fucked up.” Coerced into smashing another man’s teeth and beating him to a pulp, Rune performs the deed (shown in grisly, calculated detail), displaying no misgivings or stirrings of conscience.
Eventually, Rune starts to believe he may find a place in the gang. Later, he thinks he may even outsmart them.
Shooting docu-style, with a Red camera on location in the notorious Horsens prison (which had recently closed), the helmers employ claustrophobic closeups to mirror the experience of an inmate arriving at the harsh institution and finding his options limited by more than just locked doors. This strategy aggressively gets in the viewer’s face, much as the guards and other prisoners get in Rune’s and Rashid’s.
More pathetic than sympathetic, the young protags are not romanticized or made heroic. While this suits the style of the pic, which never conforms to the melodramatic conventions and stock characters of the prison genre, it also works against audience identification.
Apart from Asbaek (“A World Apart,” “A Family”), much of the convincing-looking cast is composed of nonpro ex-cons (fearsomely muscled and tattooed) and former prison guards. Danish director Omar Shargawi (“Go With Peace Jamil”) plays a ruthless gang enforcer with frightening intensity.
Standouts in the strong tech package include Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s moody widescreen lensing, which is at times almost color-desaturated, and the chilling industrial-noise score.