Director: Michael Noer, Tobias Lindholm
Screenplay: Michael Noer, Tobias Lindholm
Producers: Rene Ezra, Tomas Radoor
Starring: Pilou Asbaek, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Roland Moller
Year: 2010
Country: Denmark
Duration: 99 mins

R: Hit First, Hit Hardest is a Danish prison movie by Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer. R comes to UK screens with momentum, having been the winner of 8 Robert Awards in Denmark, including best director, best actor, best screenplay and best film.

Like A Prophet (2009), which the creators specifically reference, R follows a newcomer forced to negotiate gang politics in order to survive in prison – in this case “the toughest penitentiary in Denmark”. The newcomer in this case is Rune (Pilou Asbaek), a late twenties man convicted of a stabbing and seemingly out of his depth on a wing with the dangerous and tattooed white “lifers”.

At first the blond haired Rune is downright pathetic, staring at his shoes and relenting to every petty desire of his tougher cell-mates as he tries to keep his head down. He just wants to clean his “house” (cell) and stay out of trouble, but the “lifers” won’t allow him to settle. Like in A Prophet Rune is soon forced to brutally attack another man – in this case an Albanian Muslim – but even after his life remains constantly intruded. However things improve when he befriends a Muslim in the kitchens – Rashid (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) – and he finally gets some normal human interaction. Together they chance upon a clever new way of smuggling drugs down to the Muslim wing below Rune’s, and Rune realises he at last has a chance to gain some status.

But with more status – and slightly more respect and comfortable living – is greater risk. His new delivery system trusts the criminals below to pay up later, and there are already frictions between the white and Muslim races. So much hinges on the smuggling’s success that it tests his new friendship and position, both of which and could unravel at any minute.

Unlike Malik in A Prophet, Rune remains a reluctant criminal inside, doing what he has to to be comfortable, rather than trying to dominate and build an empire. Furthermore R is even less sensational about its drugs and violence, focussing on more “mundane” and practical realities of prison life, such as R losing his flimsy mattress within an hour or getting disinfectant to clean his cell. …Or the methods of transporting drugs and money around prison…. Combined with a large amount of long one-take and/or overtheshoulder shooting, R regularly has an under-stated, documentary feel. Even in its violent moments – such as when Rune is forced to attack the Albanian – Lindholm and Noer keep weapons improvised and the violence mostly offscreen, instead focussing on Rune.

Ultimately Rune’s journey takes a surprising, but again understated, turn towards the finish as he struggles to keep up with the risks he’s been taking. Linholm and Noer’s choice may divide audiences here, but regardless its impact makes R end on a thoughtful beat and reflect the anonymity – and isolation – of the incarcerated.

Lindholm and Noer describe their film as a “gritty, punishing and as intense as a two year stint in Denmark’s toughest penitentiary.” While the documentary-feel isn’t as punishing as they suggest, it is very visceral. And patient. Furthmore the journeys of the people inside provide as unglamourous, and perhaps realistic, a prison film as you may see.

An interesting story and a food-for-thought film, in particular in how it ends, if not a quick-fire, empire-building popcorn tale of life inside a Danish prison.

So not for everyone, but rewarding for those willing to try it.

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

Reviewer: Jonathan Guyett

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