Sunday, December 18, 2011

R. (2010)

Time for a change of pace -- so how about a Danish prison film? This debut film co-directed by Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm is as dark and merciless an entry in this genre as I've seen in a while, an uncompromising descent into hell. R stands for Rune (Pilou Asbek), who's in trouble as soon as he's left in his prison "house" because he'd stabbed a friend of one of the skinheads inside. He's hardly settled before he has to beat up "the Armenian" and bash the man's teeth in against a set of stairs in a suggestively sickening bit of violence -- the victim's face is wrapped in cloth so we don't see the worst. That still leaves Rune the low man on the totem pole, subject to constant humiliation and menace. A neat freak, he's soon put to work by the convicts cleaning toilets and the like while they mess up his "house" and draw obscene cartoons on photos of his girlfriend. Asbek's face is locked in a glower of perpetual desperation that seems entirely appropriate to his situation.

But R also stands for Rashid (Dulfi al-Jabouri), a Muslim con close to Rune's age who came in on the same transport and is stored with other Muslims on the level below Rune and the skinheads. Co-workers on the kitchen staff, Rune and Rashid figure out their own toilet-delivery system involving the shells of Kinder Surprise eggs to make themselves useful to the intra-penitentiary drug trade and lift some of the pressure off their heads. Theirs seems an unlikely alliance across ethnic and religous lines, but similar alliances are possible for the purpose of preying on the young convicts and betraying whatever group solidarity exists behind bars. The film demonstrates with grim certitude that it would make no difference had we followed Rashid rather than Rune through the entire picture, as their fates prove all too similar.

You could believe that Noer and Lindholm intended their movie as a corrective to Jacques Audiard's Un Prophete, the French film hailed as the best prison film of the past decade. Without disparaging Audiard at all, his tale of a young con's unlikely rise to power in prison looks like a melodramatic adventure tale compared to the miseries of R. While Audiard was working with a larger context of demographic change in the French underworld, Noer and Lindholm make their drab prison a nightmare of perpetual bullying adolescence. The banal decorations -- potted plants in the halls and such -- give the Danish pen a dormitory look that invites comparisons between the sufferings of Rune and the hazings of a private school. The cruel genius of the story is the way the directors present the intense Asbek as a ticking bomb, but thwart our expectation of release through some ultimate explosion. At a crucial moment, the focus shifts from Rune to Rashid to emphasize their commonality rather than either man's exceptional potential.

Even more cruel, perhaps, is the co-writers' determination not to reduce the trouble with prison to racial or religious conflict. Instead, they give us ample evidence that humanity itself, in the stunted form that flourishes in stir, is the essential problem, and that race or religion offer no real security to anyone, except possibly at the top of the parochial food chain. R's spiritual cruelty may turn off many viewers, but it's also the film's chief virtue -- take it or leave it. For the writer-directors it's a formidable debut, and considerable credit is also due to cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck and set decorator Holger Vig for creating a suitably bleak, often evilly banal environment for the story. Noer, Lindholm and Asbek won the big Danish movie awards this year, and without seeing their competition I feel confident that they earned them.

Here's a trailer -- with regrettably censored English subtitles, uploaded by NewTrailersUK.

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