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‘Sons’ Review: Playing a Prison Guard With a Dark Secret, ‘Borgen’ Star Sidse Babett Knudsen Uncages Her Inner Animal

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Movie buffs may recognize the name Gustav Möller because his debut feature, “The Guilty,” played Sundance, then went on to inspire an English-language remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The film famously took place on one end of an emergency services line, as an overcommitted police officer tried to rescue a distressed caller whose crisis wasn’t nearly as straightforward as it sounded. An impressive example of creativity within constraints, “The Guilty” invited audiences to make an action movie in their heads while giving them little more than the tense face of a single character to look at for most of its running time.

With “Sons,” Möller has made a more conventional film, but still does most of his storytelling off-screen. His protagonist is a Danish corrections officer named Eva Hansen (Sidse Babett Knudsen, star of the “Borgen” TV series). She’s half the size of most of the male prisoners on her ward, but can obviously hold her own, swelling her shoulders and raising her voice as needed when the men step out of line.

In the film’s opening scenes, before the plot kicks in, Möller shows Eva making an extra effort toward her charges — not to compensate for being a woman in a male jail, but because she cares. She shows an almost maternal instinct in attempting to educate and anger-manage the inmates, which makes sense later, when we learn that her 19-year-old son died behind bars. It’s the kind of irony that makes for great movie characters: Eva feels she dropped the ball in raising Simon (whose entire backstory is left to the audience’s imagination), and now she pays forward the attention she should have given him, hoping that it might save some other mother’s son.

But “Sons” is not a pious tale of an inspirational prison guard. If Eva seems more compassionate than you might expect from her post, know that her charity has its limits. Just a few minutes into the movie, a fresh batch of convicts arrives, and Eva stiffens when she sees a familiar face among them: Tall and covered in tattoos, with the angry, dead-eyed stare of someone who’s given up on the world before even experiencing it, Mikkel Iversen (Sebastian Bull) is the man who murdered her son. From the moment Eva recognizes him, she starts to behave differently, and for the rest of the movie, our task is to guess what she’s thinking.

Eva goes directly to the warden’s office to explain this unforeseen conflict of interest. But instead of resigning, she asks for a transfer to Centre Zero, where Mikkel is being sent for killing another inmate — it’s the high-security section where the most dangerous inmates are housed. Impressed by this woman’s commitment, Centre Zero’s no-nonsense commander, Rami (Dar Salim), tries to prep her for duty among the incorrigibles. He wants to protect Eva, when she might not be the one who needs protecting here.

The real question — the one Möller wants swirling in our heads — is whether Eva is looking to avenge or redeem this newly arrived murderer. There are security cameras all over the prison, which makes it tricky for her to try anything too bold. But if she wants to make Mikkel’s life miserable, there are plenty of ways she can go about it, from spitting in his food to denying him bathroom privileges. And should he push back at her provocations, Eva can get him locked up in solitary confinement, or even cancel his visitation privileges — which she tries to do after seeing Mikkel’s mother (Marina Bouras) on a list of upcoming guests.

The movie may be called “Sons,” but it’s these two mothers who provide its richest parallel, as both have experienced the failure and frustration of seeing the boys they raised go astray — but of course, Mikkel deprived Eva of the chance to comfort or reform her own son. On the day of the visit, the increasingly unhinged Eva hovers outside the room, fuming. This injustice only makes her more volatile. But how far does she plan to take her retribution? For “Borgen” fans, Knudsen’s performance reveals a more unpredictable side of the star, who gives an at-times feral turn fueled by rage and regret.

Shooting in the defunct Copenhagen prison of Vridsløselille, DP Jasper J. Spanning watches Eva and the prisoners the way a documentary crew might, shadowing them at work and observing when no one else is around. This lends the film a semi-secretive sense of intimacy within a sterile and oppressive space. But it also makes some of Eva’s behavior seem egregious: She’s constantly sneaking around and scheming, as when she steals drugs from the impound and plants them in Mikkel’s cell. Surely someone must know of her son’s criminal record and tragic fate, and yet, her superiors keep making excuses for her behavior. Are there no background checks for Danish prison guards? And no consequences for beating convicts nearly to death? In “Sons,” the real question is: Where does the cycle stop?