Gustav Moller follows up ‘The Guilty’ with an intense prison drama starring Sidse Babett Knudsen


Source: Berlin International Film Festival


Dir: Gustav Moller. Denmark/Sweden. 2024. 99mins

Eva (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a dedicated and compassionate prison guard, serious about her role in the rehabilitation and pastoral care of the inmates on her low-security wing. All of this changes, however, when Mikkel (Sebastian Bull), a young man with a link to her past, is transferred to her prison. Eva’s unhealthy preoccupation with the new inmate threatens her ability to do her job, the dynamics of her workplace and even her personal safety. Gustav Moller’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut The Guilty, this oppressive and atmospheric prison drama is superbly acted but lacks some of the compulsively slippery plotting and ingenious suspense that made his first picture such a knock out.

A tough, taut character study of a woman driven to increasingly reckless and dangerous acts

The Guilty, a Danish single-location thriller about an emergency service dispatcher fielding a call from a kidnapped woman won the Sundance Audience Award and was subsequently remade (by Antoine Fuqua) in English with Jake Gyllenhaal in the central role. While it might be unrealistic to expect a repetition, Moller demonstrated a clear understanding in his debut of the power of playing his cards close to his chest. What is slightly unexpected here is how a crucial reveal about the connection between Eva and Mikkel comes so early in the film. Moller lays his cards on the table and thus loses the element of surprise that served him so well in his debut.

Sons is, nonetheless, a tough, taut character study of a woman driven, against all better judgement, to increasingly reckless and dangerous acts. Knudsen’s magnetic turn and her profile thanks to the success of Borgen should make this a title of moderate interest with arthouse audiences, even if it is unlikely to match the breakout potential of The Guilty. 

Moller creates an oppressive atmosphere from the outset, with the use of a tight academy ratio that evokes the walls of the cells. Sound is also a powerful tool, with the metallic clatter of the locks and bars high in the mix, to jarring and unsettling effect. Against the cold, hard edges of the prison backdrop, Eva provides a moment of kindness. She greets the inmates with a smile each morning, enquiring about their well-being. Later in the day, she runs classes in meditation and mindfulness.

All this changes when she spots Mikkel, shackled but swaggering, as he is unloaded from the transfer truck. Once again, Moller’s use of sound, or in this case the absence of it, tells us everything. The ambient grumble of institutional architecture fades to silence as Eva tunes out everything except the face of the young man. Without giving away the details of their connection, it is a moment of almost intolerable emotional intensity for Eva. Her patience and her well of empathy for the other prisoners is immediately depleted. On a compulsive whim, Eva asks to be transferred to the high-security wing, where dangerous, unpredictable prisoners such as Mikkel are housed.

There are questions raised by certain aspects of the film’s plot about its accuracy when it comes to background checks and due diligence in the appointment of prison service employees. There are moments when entire security protocols seem to be dismissed in the service of dramatic expediency. But never in doubt is the quality of the forceful and wholly persuasive performances from both the reliably excellent Knudsen and Bull, who combines an angular brutalist face with a child’s transparently readable emotions, to chilling effect. Together, they navigate an extremely conflicted and evolving relationship between the two characters – a complicated dynamic that is crucial to the success of the film.

Production company: Nordisk Film Production

International sales: Les Films du Losange

Producers: Lina Flint, Thomas Heinesen

Screenplay: Gustav Moller, Emil Nygaard Albertsen

Cinematography: Jasper J. Spanning

Editing: Rasmus Stensgaard Madsen

Production design: Kristina Kovacs

Music: Jon Ekstrand

Main cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Sebastian Bull, Dar Salim, Marina Bouras, Olaf Johannessen, Jacob Lohmann, Siir Tilif, Rami Zayat, Mathias Petersen