We don’t step evenly into Sons. Over the stretch of a long, grim elevator ride––face-to-face with Eva (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a middle-aged woman working as a guard in the Danish prison system––we descend into it. The initial reveal is light-hearted, the opposite direction one might expect from a prison thriller. But only briefly. Like its Scandinavian neighbors, Denmark has been renowned for its relatively humane approach to mass incarceration: low rates of recidivism, fewer instances of violence, and anti-punitive philosophies. But “relatively” and “has been” are the key words here. 

The Danish Prisons and Probation Service is still a modern, westernized prison-industrial complex. And one in sharp decline. Where it once swam upstream alongside its Nordic siblings in the name of ethics, it’s now accused of taking cues from more penal, profit-bent countries such as the US. In 2019, Bo Yde Sørensen, Head of the Danish Prison Federation, went so far as to declare the Danish prison system “in the middle of a historic crisis.” Echoes from within have only multiplied since.

It’s this real-world descent of the Danish prison system that sets the stage for native writer-director Gustav Möller’s sophomore feature. We witness a streamlined version of the systemic change through Eva’s narrative. When we meet her, she loves the inmates on her block and they love her. She works quietly, diligently, patiently in a low-security block with rehabilitative communal spaces that allow the prisoners to make coffee, study math, and the like, all of which Eva mothers them through with a soft smile when she’s not leading guided meditations.

It isn’t long before a mysterious young man (Sebastian Bull), tatted head-to-toe, is committed, and everything about Eva changes. Smile erased, brow furrowed, lips pursed with determination, she can’t take her eyes off him, the reason why kept in the shadows under Möller’s direction. That’s the central mystery of Sons: who is Mikkel? And why has his presence turned her from French Dispatch guard to Abu Ghraib offender overnight?

Before we can glean anything, she requests a block transfer to Centre Zero, the highest-security zone on campus and, of course, where Mikkel is being held. Rami (Dar Salim), head of the block, can tell she’s not cut out for the brutality, but he appreciates her headstrong determination and self-sufficiency above all. Braving the underworld of maximum-security prison work (think: animalistic outbursts, shit flung in your face, solitary confinement), Eva is fueled by an unknown motivation that renders her fearless. Until she can’t afford to be. 

Jon Ekstrand’s eerie, ethereal score seeps through every crevice of this largely wordless film (co-penned by Emil Nygaard Albertsen). It’s a probing tension of a score that evokes Eva’s personal descent into impulsive retribution––a parallel to the prison system in the film’s crosshairs, albeit one with a hope for the future. 

Dar Salim takes on a minor but interesting role reversal after Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, usurping the coveted Jake Gyllenhaal spot (in command, not screen time). More importantly, Sidse Babett Knudsen delivers a terrifically subtle lead performance that keeps the story afloat when the filmmakers settle for a more conservative and, in this case, underwhelming Eurocinema style, the calling card for too many western European films with a social conscience.

It’s still a thoughtful style of filmmaking and, imperatively, one able to hone in on the chasm that separates those who dehumanize from those who don’t versus the infinitesimal space that separates the free from most inmates, especially when there’s a clean opportunity for revenge. 

Sons (Vogter) premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: B-

No more articles