R: Hit First, Hit Hardest

Denmark (2010) Dirs. Tobias Lindholm & Michael Noer

Sometimes when one particular film comes along and causes a stir, others will come along it is wake covering similar themes and either slips under the radar or be dismissed as a clone despite having equally superlative credentials in its own right. R: Hit First, Hit Hardest has been compared, and with some validity, to multi-award winning French prison drama A Prophet but can stand on its own two feet and pack a similar weighty and sobering punch.

The titular “R” presumably refers to Rune (Pilou Asbæk), a headstrong young man transferred to one of Denmark’s roughest prisons, Horsens State Prison (actually used for the filming) after stabbing another man. He is determined to keep his head down for his two year term but the resident top dog Carsten (Jacob Gredsted) and his deputy Mason (Roland Møller) make that difficult for him. Rune teams up with Arab inmate Rashid (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) to help the prison’s drug deals more efficient via an ingenious scheme of Rune’s creation. As ever though intrusive elements are always present to cause trouble.

The similarities between R and A Prophet are probably evident from that summary but end there as the tale of Rune follows it own path, eschewing the straight drama structure of its French counterpart for a more stripped down cinema vérité feel. With the actual Horsens Prison used for the location instead of a sound stage the credibility is immediately established as is the presence of real life inmates to make up the numbers. And yes they are a scary looking bunch.

One shared plot point between the two films is the relationship between the native inmate Rune and the Arab Rashid although this remains purely superficial. The pair meet while working in the kitchen and form an amicable bond, perhaps a too trusting one for Rune’s sake. Needing a recipient for his drug trafficking scheme on the other level of the prison Rune recruits Rashid and soon Rune is hanging with the big boys until an Arab heavy Bazhir (Omar Shargawi) muscles in on the act.

Prisons as we know are hostile environments so nothing runs as smoothly for Rune or indeed many inmates. While A Prophet seems to have a sense of hope and rehabilitation for its lead character, R on the other hand is keen to remind us of the harsh realities of criminals and sociopaths locked up together. Unlike other prison film leads, Rune is no wimp; he knows the score and can handle himself if necessary. Even though he isn’t naïve to think he is untouchable once the drug scheme proves a success,  he does find himself up the proverbial creek upon learning that Carsten and Mason didn’t have his back once it goes south, leaving him to fix the mess by himself.

It is not a spoiler to tell you that there are no happy endings in this film, making this a prison film more akin to the seminal British shocker Scum than The Shawshank Redemption but really this is the only logical way to conclude this story which in all fairness isn’t going to end here anyway.

Other prison films are created to make us believe in the redemption of criminals or to have us sympathise for those on the wrong side of the law when in the presence of greater offenders. But the reality is that the hierarchy in prison, and by some extension the criminal landscape in the outside, is a dog eat dog world and a loyalties are fleeting at best and a fantasy at worst. For R this is the key message and a lesson Rune learns the hard way.

First time directors Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking) and Michael Noer (Northwest) have no intentions of mollycoddling the audience and while other prison films may be more violent and graphic, the intimate filming style with hand held cameras and the claustrophobic setting are just as effective in creating a palpably uneasy atmosphere. The lack of musical soundtrack adds to this feeling of discomfort, the eerie silence an effective tension builder as any symphonic score. The film however is explicit in showing the hidden goings on behind bars, such as the unsanitary method for transporting drugs about the place.

Pilou Asbæk will of course be known to many of us as Kasper in the hit TV political drama Borgen and hopefully the recent under tense hit A Hijacking. This film predates both of these productions giving Asbæk his first major starring film role and he couldn’t be any different from his more familiar roles. Even with his first appearance being shot from the back we can see that this is an intense young chap and his presence remains strong throughout the film, regardless of that original intensity becoming slowly compromised, ebbing away as things go wrong.

Asbæk is surrounded by some mean looking inmates, some genuine as mentioned earlier, the others accomplished actors, including Roland Møller (from Northwest) as Mason, a duplicitous veteran criminal who knows how to play the game – and others – to his advantage. Jacob Gredsted possesses a menacing presence as the heavily tattooed Carsten, creating a nice link between the acting cast and the real life inmates.

The story may have been told before and some may suggest in a better manner but R’s naturalistic gritty feel brings it somewhat closer to the genuine article than others films on this subject. As far as debuts go, both directors have clearly paid close attention to R’s predecessors and while the template has been followed, there is enough of their own ideas to make this film confidently stand out and it is rewarding to see that the experience here was out to good use in their superb follow-up films.