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Sons (Vogter) Film Review: Claustrophobic Thriller

A woman's face is seen in between the raised arms of a naked tattooed man in the film Sons (Vogter) from Gustav Möller

Sidse Babett Knudsen is sensational in Gustav Möller’s Sons (Vogter), a far-fetched but chilling prison thriller that explores morality, punishment, justice, and rehabilitation.

Gustav Möller’s breakout film, The Guilty (2018), was a textbook example in how to make a highly engaging thriller/mystery based on a simple concept with strong potential. His follow-up, Sons (Vogter), is no less compelling, again utilising a largely single setting to terrific effect. It is a strikingly volatile film where the possibility of violence lurks in every scene, often erupting into something deeply dramatic. Sons’ forthright style implies something straightforward and surface level, but Möller expertly ensures its thorny trappings play out to more complex effect.

Eva (Sisde Babett Knudsen, Borgen, Westworld) is an idealistic guard working in a low security prison wing. She has respectful relationships with the prisoners, helping them on their way to rehabilitation and release. It doesn’t take long before this hardworking, rewarding position is thrown into disarray with the arrival of a new prisoner at the neighbouring high security wing. Mikkel (a terrifying Sebastian Bull) is serving 16 years for a murder he committed in prison. The victim? Eva’s son. The setup of Sons is swiftly executed by Möller, and after a transfer request from model employee Eva, she finds herself working in the same wing as Mikkel, thus beginning a thrilling, tense, and terrifying journey of morality and justice.

Some of the ensuing events are somewhat far-fetched—when Mikkel is moved to solitary after Eva assaults him, no one seems to notice when she visits him daily—but the way Möller shapes this intense tale of revenge is fascinating. The straightforward simplicity of Sons conjures a great dynamism to proceedings, with the events spiralling further and further out of Eva’s control and muddying her initially strong morals and ideals.

As Eva, Knudsen is terrific in what is arguably the best performance of Berlinale 2024. Her face is a constantly changing canvas, ready to explode at any moment. Knudsen ranges from intense sadness to vengeful anger impressively in what is a deeply layered performance. Bull is a mindblowing antagonist, a hulking physical presence with an unerringly vicious face, who switches from calmness to extreme violence in an instant. There is barely a moment to breathe in Sons, such is its explosive potential.

Two characters look at each other in the film Sons (Vogter) from Gustav Möller
A still from Sons (Vogter), now at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival. (© Nikolaj Moeller / Berlinale)

Sons largely takes place in the cold, claustrophobic confines of the prison. In the lower security wing, there is more freedom and colour, but when we reach the area with more dangerous prisoners, Sons becomes a film of intense interiors and hardened faces. Möller utilises the minimalist space impressively, whether it is capturing faces through the small holes of cell doors or light struggling to reach the inside through high walls and enclosed ceilings. It is reflective of the futility of Eva’s journey; no matter how badly she treats Mikkel, it gives her no sense of closure, only short lived, savage relief.

As a wider piece on the concepts of prison and rehabilitation, Sons works well, although it is often more preoccupied with being a thriller as opposed to anything deeper. The higher risk prisoners live in decrepit conditions and are often poorly treated by the guards, and even though Mikkel’s past violent actions were shocking, the torturous way he is treated still feels off. Furthermore, the consequences of Eva’s revenge don’t just hit Mikkel. They reach to his mother too, as well as the other prisoners on Eva’s old wing who miss her presence and aid in their lives.

Möller allows the events and action to speak for these themes, as opposed to anything more didactic. Like in The Guilty, he frames scenes with a quick moving intensity that constantly propels the story forward. The sometimes unrealistic events, which seem to be a vehicle for Möller to move from set piece to set piece, give Sons an occasional cheapness, but as a thrilling ride that posits interesting questions about crime and punishment, it is a huge success.

Sons (Vogter) premiered at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival. Read our Berlin Film Festival reviews!

Sons (Vogter) (Les Films de Losange)
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