R-poster

Available on Netflix Instant or Apple iTunes? No, this film is only available on DVD, including Netflix DVD rental.

The prison system is a microcosm of the dog-eat-dog world we live in. Survival is based on which group you align yourself with, whether that group will accept you, and whether you can accomplish that which you need to do to survive. Prison stories have always been a fascinating subject for movies because they can simultaneously offer us a glimpse into a world which most of us are unfamiliar with while also seeing a reflection of what our own world is like. R is one such film. This Danish film had a quiet release in 2011 and unfortunately no one seemed to notice its existence. R has the unfortunate distinction of being released around the same time as the 2009 French prison drama and Academy Award winner, A PROPHET. Because of this, similarities between the two films have undoubtedly been made and R has been unfairly overshadowed by the success of A PROPHET. Nevertheless, R is a worthy addition to the prison film genre and a film worth watching.

R is about a young Danish man named Rune (Pilou Asbaek), who has been sentenced to two years in a prison for an unspecified crime. As a newbie in the prison’s pecking order, Rune soon finds himself at the beck and call of the tattooed Danish prisoners, one of whom gives Rune two choices:  beat the shit out of an Albanian inmate (2nd time in a row I have seen a film featuring Albanian characters – the other film being KIDNAPPED) or face a life of living hell. Rune accepts the first option and carries out his assignment successfully. However, Rune then becomes the servant of Mason (Roland Moller), a bully who makes Rune do whatever he wants him to do. Before long, Rune befriends another inmate, Rashid (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), a Muslim Arab prisoner who lives in the ward that houses the other Arab inmates. With the help of Rashid, Rune then discovers a new method of transporting drugs between the Danish and Arab inmates. With this information, Rune offers the leader of the Danish prisoners a way to transport his drugs to the Arabs without getting caught. Rune finally elevates his status with this information, but for how long?

R offers an unrelenting and unforgiving look into prison life. Although R takes place in the Danish prison system, I cannot imagine this system being much different than any other prison system in the world. Here, in order to be left alone, you cannot simply keep your head down and mind your own business. You must align yourself with one of the prisoner groups and that requires doing their bitch work. In R, we are introduced to essentially two groups: the Danes and the Arabs. Being a Dane, Rune’s only choice is to join the other Danes, which he does. One of the things I most appreciated about R and the last film I reviewed, the Spanish KIDNAPPED (https://voiceofcinema.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/kidnapped-secuestrados-2011-grade-c-starring-fernando-cayo-manuela-velles-ana-wagener-guillermo-barrientos-martijn-kuiper-dritan-biba-xoel-yanez-luis-iglesia-b-pepo-suevos-direc/), is that the filmmakers behind these films did not concern themselves with giving their audiences an emotional satisfaction. Specifically, none of the protagonists in either film meets a happy ending. Perhaps this is a reflection of the dour economic times affecting Europe, but I think it goes far beyond that. In R, directors Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer even go so far as to make you sympathize with Rune and Rashid before pulling the plug on their lives. Neither Rune or Rashid appear to be hardened career criminals. Both are shown with their respective families and we see the softer side of these two characters as they befriend each other. The filmmakers seem to be showing us that in prison, there are no friendships. Every relationship is a part of doing business and if you cannot meet your end of the bargain or if someone else can offer a better business deal than you can, then your relationship is over.

R is not meant to be a protest film about prison conditions. In fact, prisons in Denmark look remarkably comfortable. The inmates get to wear their own clothes, each inmate has his own cell from which he can go in and out whenever he pleases, and they get a nice soccer field and use of the gym. R does not judge the actions of the prisoners nor the guards. In that sense, R feels like a documentary in that it simply points its lens inside the prison and lets us make our own judgments. What I found interesting in R was the separation of the Arab and Danish prisoners. The film implies that relations between the two is tense enough to warrant housing the two sets of prisoners in different floors of the prison. The only times Arabs and Danes interact is outside in the courtyard and even then the two sides keep to themselves.

R is a spare looking film. It is shot Dogme-style so you see a lot of handheld camerawork, natural lighting, and naturalistic performances. The film also avoids any of the cliché prison drama tropes like prisoners planning an escape or prisoners feeling any sort of redemption. The film was shot in a shut-down penitentiary with real ex-convicts and ex-guards to give the film its sense of realism. R also has no soundtrack. Instead it relies on the sounds of the prison with metal doors clanking shut and the conversations and shouts of the inmates.

Obviously, R is not a film you can go into expecting to see a typical prison drama. The outcome of the “good guys” is not good and you will be left feeling empty. At the same time, R is one of the most realistic portrayals of what it is like to be in prison (or at least in a Danish prison). It contains skillful performances from its actors and the filmmakers’ avoidance of any clichés makes for a riveting story.

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