R: Hit First, Hit Hardest

R: Hit First, Hit Hardest


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

R is a stunning, even punishing film, a challenge to audience expectations and a treat. The first feature from writing/directing duo Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer, its power is a product of unflinching attention, quasi-documentary accuracy, and what one can only call bravery.

The film opens with an almost orchestral imposition of sound, a figure anonymised by shadow in the back of a van. Through prison gates, still in darkness, the letter R is superimposed, massive, blank. Then we see him, Rune (Pilou Asbk), drawn into the Danish prison system by a stabbing, apparently - we never learn more. We don't need to. Outside doesn't mean much, people are waiting for him. We see little. We know that there's a grandmother, she visits, but there's nothing else. There is only the prison.

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The rituals of prison consume. The bullying, the racism, the corruption, the quotidian nightmare of blank walls and exercise yards and unspeakable violence and blank walls and exercise yards. Rune's search upon entry recalls that of Malik in A Prophet, but in some ways that familiarity helps us, the audience - this is nothing new for anyone involved, and we can see that. Once inside, the hazing, the attempts to curry favour, all unfold with brutal inevitability.

There is one exception, two, truly - the first, the most important, is Rashid. A debut role for Dulfi Al-Jabouri, he is compelling, cowardly, compromised and crushed by the same system as Rune. As Rune ends up beholden, so too does Rashid. What links them is a scheme for the distribution of drugs that depends on a chance discovery and then collapses. From the complicity of the guards, in particular the ward/wing supervisor Kim (Kim Winther) to the acceptance of the status quo from everyone else, there is a key element here of doom - impending, fated, nightmarish.

When a deal goes sour, and badly, Rune's desperate attempts to resolve it at one point bring him into the TV room. While he hopes to garner support, an English language documentary on natural selection plays ignored in the corner. A process of winnowing, then, an environment that selects for the fittest without fear or favour or forgiveness.

It's a triumph of naturalistic storytelling, of symbolism, aided by tremendous technical work. The performances are all convincing, conveying a mixture of claustrophobia, desperation, and for some a feral swagger. The sound, from the off, is intimidating, and mention has to be made of the quality of the costuming and set dressing. The end is telling too, a long, static shot of the prison itself which recalls Haneke. Its subtleties make it strong, but its real strength is its conviction.

The film will inevitably be compared with A Prophet, indeed, this review has already done so. While it deals with the prison career of an individual, the effect of that environment on a single person, it would be a mistake to think that R is in any way a remake or an attempt to cover the same ground. A Prophet wasn't about someone ordinary, but R is. Then there's what amounts to a twist, at least in plot terms, but the real clue to unraveling R is in the way the title is presented. This is a foreign prison movie, and so was A Prophet, but Once Upon A Time In The West and The Searchers are both Westerns, Apocalypse Now and The Dirty Dozen both war movies. To focus on genre similarities is to miss the distinctiveness, the invention - R is, almost ironically given its treatment of the subject, unique, distinct, amazing.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2010
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Sentenced for an unexplained stabbing, a young man enters a violent prison.
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Director: Tobias Lindholm, Michael Noer

Writer: Tobias Lindholm, Michael Noer

Starring: Johan Philip Asbæk, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Roland Møller, Jacob Gredsted, Kim Winther, Omar Shargawi, Sune Nørgaard

Year: 2010

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: Denmark


EIFF 2010

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