R – Hit First, Hit Hardest (2010)

R Hit First Hit Hardest

Playing the waiting game, Noer and Lindholm’s R: Hit First, Hit Hardest reveals the bitter, cinematic truth about life behind bars in a Danish prison.

R: Hit First, Hit Hardest

Sinnerman by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Like a Danish, and rather belated, sequel to Fritz Lang’s chilling 1931 masterpiece M, Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm’s R sees our monogrammed protagonist on the other side of liberty. In fact, R opens with Rune’s passage into prison life, tight-lipped as he undresses for the taunting prison guards, silent as gates unlock and bolt tightly behind him. No In The Hall Of The Mountain King whistling here. Instead, as Rune enters Horsens prison, left to the mercy of first-rate murderers twice his size, his cell mattress stolen within minutes of his arrival, there’s no doubt who runs the show in this Hall of the Prison King.

The prison kingpin in this wing is Carsten and his henchman Mureren. And barely a day passes before Rune’s dragged into the bovver boy’s cell to scrub it clean as well as the block toilets and Carsten’s past business. Rune’s fight for survival allies him almost unwillingly with the alpha jailbirds, and faced with a choice between hospitalisation and beating up a prisoner from another block, the decision’s too easy. It’s a lovely cinematic moment too, as the camera follows Rune down the stairs, sock and pool ball in hand, before his intended victim, the Albanian, becomes the focus of the camera’s attention – the over-the-shoulder relay only intensifying the expected moment of violence. It’s excruciating too, as a mushy crunch accompanies Rune bashing the Albanian’s teeth in on a stair corner.

From there, R follows Rune’s aspirant climb in a trajectory that recalls Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophète. Only with an unhappy ending. From his lowly beginnings as the sour-faced block cleaner, humiliated into lying foetal and thumb-sucking on Mureren’s freshly scrubbed cell floor, he rises to a favoured position after discovering a way to run drugs from one floor to another using nothing but empty Kinder Surprise capsules and a toilet waste pipe. This drug-peddling independence from vassalage sees him reunited with his mattress in a new cell on the sunny side of the street, and invited into the elite clique to play poker. But it’s a precarious position, destroyed when he supplies prisoner-from-the-other-wing Bazhir with three packages and no money comes back.

It’s bleak but there are delicious moments, like the budgie match between Copenhagen and Queen’s Park Rangers, one ‘team’ escaping its cage in a glimpse of celluloid lyricism, the tattooed convicts swiping the air feverishly to return the absconded budgie back to its coop. The scene’s teary-eyed glory makes the metaphor more than clear, the very idea of freedom rendering the prisoners human for the first time. Even shots of the drug mule shitting in a bin or Rune strapped down in the hole and pissing himself have a strange kind of beauty. But it’s a whimsical charm that only lasts as long as Rune’s hair. And as he shaves off his golden locks in favour of a shaven-headed defence mask, the prison game has spiralled out of control, the die have already been cast. And it’s snake eyes.

Above the block racism against ‘rag heads’ and ‘monkeys’, Rune’s not-for-profit friendship with kitchen co-conspirator Rashid is humanity’s only saving grace at Horsens, R‘s only tragedy – for when the krone fail to materialise, Rune has to turn on his friend to save his own skin. Here kinship is ice thin, and no matter how Rune may try to prevent it, getting himself thrown in the hole, it’s clear there is no “us” and soon Rashid shops him to Mureren and the Albanian to be butchered in the prison cold store. Both just pawns in a bigger game.

It’s perhaps here, deprived of the stony-faced charisma of Pilou Asbæk, that R begins to unravel. It’s Psycho-esque in its mid-reel dive from one hero to another, but even Dulfi Al-Jabouri’s light-footed performance can’t pedal fast enough through the film’s secondary plot of self-sacrificial justice as Rashid fingers the culprit, ending up with Hot Coffee all over him, a dynamite mix of boiling oil and sugar showered on the canaries who sing. And unlike Un Prophète‘s limo-humming ‘fin‘ of chilling potential, R finishes with a foreboding whimper as we pan back from Horsens prison. Inside the game remains, only the players change.

Citing as their aim a cliche-free prison movie, Noer and Lindholm’s film is surprisingly familiar. Its similarity to Un Prophète is perhaps unfortunate timing, but there’s something of The Girl in Rune’s Dragon Tattoo, something of The Shawshank Redemption in his prison-yard splendour in the rain, something Bressonian in the desperate upward light, framing Rune against his barred-window cell. More Un Condamné à mort than A Man Escaped, Rune’s a routine victim of the prison system who tries to play the prison game and fails. Perhaps more realistic than Un Prophète‘s rise to glory, R is nevertheless a rather bleak warning about the realities of prison life. And with the story behind his incarceration never properly disclosed, there but for the grace of of God go I. Wherever the wind will carry us.

R: Hit First, Hit Hardest is released in the UK on 26th August 2011

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