Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Danish Oz: R

It is pretty rotten being the new guy, particularly in prison, especially when they’re expecting you. Survival will not be pretty for Rune as he lives a sub-human day-to-day existence in co-writer-directors Tobias Lindholm & Michael Noer’s Danish prison drama, R (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Even in liberal Scandinavia (wherein Denmark leans a tad to the right, relatively), prison life is basically like Oz. However, Lindholm & Noer spare viewers the sexual assaults, compensating instead with plenty of violence, into which R(une) is immediately initiated. The Nordic gang led by Sune and his younger lieutenant Mason orders the new inmate to attack “The Albanian” in an American History X fashion or suffer a similar fate himself. Having no choice, Rune complies, over and over again, becoming the gang’s gopher and domestic servant.

Filmed on location at the decommissioned Horsens State Prison, Lindholm & Noer present a world ruled by the law of the jungle, where the guards are ever-present, but largely irrelevant to the power games playing out within the prisoner population. In their ruthlessly politically incorrect environment, the Nordic and Muslim prisoners bitterly despise each other, but are still willing to maintain an illicit drug trade. This initially presents an opportunity for Rune. Though the prison is largely segregated, he is able to devise a delivery method with R(ashid), his secularly inclined Muslim co-worker in the prison kitchen. Temporarily, both R’s enjoy greater status and living conditions as a result, but Rune still carries the baggage of his violent actions.

If you don’t already know how the inmates hide their drugs, I don’t want to be the one to explain it to you. R will make it plenty clear. It is gritty stuff, never shying away from the muck of prison life. In fact, the film is so brutally honest, it throws viewers a considerable third act change-up. Yet, it makes perfect sense within the context of prison reality.

Pilou Asbæk’s disciplined matter-of-fact lead performance lends the film considerable credibility. He is a hard kid to love, but good golly he sullenly shoulders more than his share of abuse. Indeed, it is not sympathy he elicits, so much as absolute exhaustion. As the other R, Dulfi Al-Jabouri is mostly stuck with sidekicky duties in the first half, but he has some nicely turned soul searching moments down the stretch. While as far as movie thugs go, Roland Møller’s Mason has to be one of the realest and skuzziest you’re ever going to not want to meet.

Frankly, R makes Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet look like a fairy tale. Remarkably, it does so without any dirty bits, unless you count the pervasive graphic violence, mental cruelty, scatological detail, and overt racist and sexist discourse. Still, there is no sex, as befits Denmark’s Calvinist roots. Undeniably a film of visceral impact, R is also smartly executed. Viewers should understand full well though, no punches will be pulled when it opens this Friday (6/17) in New York at the Quad Cinemas.