No man is an island in the prison film. It doesn’t matter how strong the individual presence, every soul worth a damn becomes a causality of the institutional meat grinder. More than any other genre, the prison film is shackled by its conventions: the initial panicked moment walking through the gates, getting processed (and humiliated) by guards strip-searching every corner of your body, that first stroll down the cellblock as every inmate gives you a thousand-yard stare, and finally the life-altering shutting of the bars. It’s like a never-ending perp walk into hell, a nightmarish gift that keeps on giving. We’ve seen the cyclical scenario so many times, from the historically mannered (The Shawshank Redemption) to the aesthetically measured (A Man Escaped), that the dissolution of hope for physical or spiritual rescue feels almost second nature, inherently anchored to brutal tropes no matter how well the execution.
So is there any room for expansion in a genre universe based on such limited perspective and crushing repetition? The Danish film R, co-directed by Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer, can’t fully answer this question despite its superb realization of the prison experience and all the moral contradictions that follow. Set in Horsens Prison, the oldest and nastiest Denmark has to offer, R follows the initiation of Rune (Johan Philip Asbæk) into the volatile closed-off world of hierarchical domination. He’s a blond-haired punk in a sea of ripped skinheads, and it doesn’t take long for these tattooed hammerheads to force Rune into submission. The opening bit of horrific violence not only introduces the status quo of brutality, but also how “fresh meat” is meticulously utilized to realign the mechanism of power behind bars. Rune quickly realizes he’s just another cog in the machine, and most of R charts his attempt to regain a sense of individual power.
While grimly similar in tone to Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, R avoids that film’s aesthetic dips into surrealist imagery and crime-film theatrics. Instead, Lindholm and Noer create a striking narrative duality between Rune and his Arabic counterpart, Rashid (Dulf Al-Jabouri), who team up to fill a void in the drug-transport process the segregated ethnic groups depend on for mutual benefit. The two young men work together in the kitchen, share some friendly chatter about their respective bosses, and find a common ground that is both genuine and nuanced. Yet what they really find isn’t true friendship but a mutual understanding of extreme suffering. Both are starved for safety, not power.
If the trajectory of R foreshadows tragedy early and often (what prison film doesn’t?), the filmmakers manage to infuse quiet moments of reflection and panic into each man’s traumatic experience. No matter the character, personality, or nationality, Rune and, later, Rashid spend most of their time waiting for something bad to happen, and the process is fittingly grueling. R relies on this construction of tension in between acts of violence, and glaring aesthetic markers (color scheme, numbing sound design, off-screen space) to heighten the impact. There’s an all-white kitchen apron that’s destined to get stained with something other than bacon grease, a pristine shower wall suddenly spotted with arterial spray, and a slamming kitchen door that signifies so much loss through sudden silence. That most of the film’s disturbing moments happen on neutral territory (the stairwell, meat locker, the shower) speaks to the omniscient influence of those who’ve long disavowed their humanity card.
Since R focuses on complete mental and physical fragmentation, it rightfully separates the desolate locale based on narrative focus. The similarities between Rune and Rashid are not fully apparent until the film changes directions late, giving the viewer a peak behind another stifling curtain, a slightly different shade of torment with an all too familiar power structure. There’s a palpable desperation to each sequence, and Noer and Lindholm’s fluid handheld camera haunts these men through the dank interiors and gloomy prison yard, sometimes holding on them for long takes that seem to capture an entire experience in a matter of minutes. R ends with a crushing comeuppance that finally links Rune and Rashid forever, not as friends or enemies, but as victims of the same institutional manipulation. The final narrative overlap echoes the ice-cold words of Rune’s savage boss, spoken far too calmly earlier in the film: “There is no us.”