The 16th Los Angeles Film Festival kicked off on Thursday with Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright. But I forbore from braving the downtown Lakers insanity by starting on Friday with the Danish prison movie R. And this is what it’s like:

“R” stands for Rune, a young man who’s welcomed into jail at the start with a strip search, having his mattress taken brazenly away and being turned into the block’s cleaning bitch. Despite his surly glare, it may be that he’s quite a nice boy, cleaning his cell, keeping his clothes tidy and ringing his grandma to come visit (albeit that his request to her for kinder eggs has an ulterior motive).

Wisely he keeps his trap shut most of the time, with the result that we know almost nothing about him, despite the fact that he is kept firmly centre-stage; it’s to actor Pilou Asbæk’s credit, founded mainly on that glare and a couple of brief moments where he portrays quite a winning smile, joshing with the only inmate with whom he develops anything like a friendship, that we can retain any interest in his character. Less so the hard men, whose characterizations reside solely in their tattoos and interchangeably mean attitudes. These are the cons who share his wing and run the prison hash racket, which he gets in on with a semi-ingenious wheeze involving toilet pipes.

Several nagging questions arise about what’s going on, not least of which is that if Rune can receive discrete payment in a locker room, why can’t the whole exchange be conducted there and then? These questions are only distracting, however, as it becomes clear that the filmmakers (Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer) are not going to let us in on the inner lives of their characters. Comparisons with Un Prophète are inevitable; the films open in almost identical fashion and we don’t know where Rune has come from and barely what he did, and the film is shot with gritty authenticity in a real prison with a good handful of real ex-cons (also: why do none of the prisoners in either this-is-what-it’s-like-in-prison film have sex with one another?). As overrated as the French film was, it looks like a masterfully textured bildungsroman beside R; the latter is more intent on showing what it is like to be in prison than what it is like to be a prisoner, but there’s no rigor in the scrutiny (bar lessons in how to insert and remove smuggled drugs from the rectum).

Along with Asbæk’s gradually appealing presence, attention is held by a largely discrete but unsettling score, the palpable drabness of the location and dogged, slightly bleached-out camerawork that sticks close to Rune at all times with a surprisingly successful knack for drifting in and out of focus. It succumbs to prettifying on only a couple of occasions, with golden dusk light and some kind of symbolic purification in the rain (followed by the first of two head shavings). But the film plays an excessively bold move about two thirds of the way through by switching its central character. As much as we didn’t know a great deal about Rune and had little reason to care, we have even less sympathy for his traitorous replacement and the film’s final act of violence confirms the suspicion that the filmmakers’ priorities list had “grit” firmly at the top, with character, story and emotion a long way behind.

Rating: 6/10

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