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King of Devil's Island
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by Jay Seaver

"A parable of survival - but of whom?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "King of Devil's Island" opens with a story of a harpooner and a whale, which it regularly returns to, but it isn't immediately certain who the whale represents and who the whalers represent, even if the story is being told in the first person. Consider that the film takes place in 1915 Norway, when this activity wasn't nearly so taboo. The point, however, is clear: A powerful opponent is not stopped with a single strike, whether on the open sea or in a boy's reformatory camp.

That camp is located on Bastøy, an island just off the course of Norway, and the two newest residents are Erling (Benjamin Helstad), an older teen who has already spent some time as a sailor, and Ivar (Magnus Langlete), a younger, less hardy fellow. The island's governor (Stellan Skarsgard) gives them the standard speech about how this is a new start and they do not speak of their crimes, assigning them numbers C-19 and C-5. He sees Erling as defiant, but perhaps a potential replacement for the current C-1, Olav (Trond Nilssen), who is set to leave the island after six years in a few weeks. Ivar, meanwhile, captures the attention of house-father Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner).

What we don't see and hear throughout the film is carefully well-chosen: We don't need to see what Bråthen is doing to Ivar; that director Marius Holst and his writers give the characters difficulty in saying it out loud is perhaps an even better way to show horrible it is, and by not showing it, the audience is prevented from associating it with the punishments doled out by the staff (which while harsh, are not meant to be sadistic) or the fights amongst the kids. We never learn the details of what any particular resident has done to be sent to Bastøy, and for all we know, the tough Erling may have the most minor of infractions despite the whispered rumor that he killed somebody. Holst and company make whether anybody is getting what they deserved irrelevant; the important thing is what responsibilities everybody has to each other and whether they are living up to them.

This plays out for both the younger and older characters, and both halves of the cast do excellent jobs. Benjamin Helstad's Erling can be a bit of a brute, probably too much so to serve as the film's moral compass, but there is a certain intelligence to him as well, enough to eventually realize that defiance of misused authority, in and of itself, is not necessarily a virtue. Trond Nilssen, meanwhile, shows Olav learning the same thing about the sort of obedience necessary to earn one's release. Both do a great job of showing their points of view changing over the course of the movie while still remaining resolutely themselves. Magnus Langlete, meanwhile, has a sort of subtlety to how he demonstrates Ivar's weakness - his every motion doesn't scream "victim", but it's also pretty clear that among the group, he's the one that's going to be easiest to pick off.

The adults are equally intriguing, especially as the film goes on. Skarsgard initially plays the governor as an almost abstracted authority (we don't ever actually hear his name), we see him as a man with decent ideals as well as a reasonable pragmatism, while Joner plays Bråthen as a monster, but one who knows enough to confine his activities to where people aren't looking. There's a scene toward the middle, though, where Bråthen lashes out and our impression of the governor changes as a result. Joner makes a frighteningly believable predator while Skarsgard creates a really perfect alloy of arrogance and cowardice.

That scene is just one of several times where the picture surprised me. I hesitate to call the screenplay inventive, because it does in many ways lean on the basic rules of a certain type of story, but writers Dennis Magnusson and Eric Schmid do a fine job of making what the characters do seem both spontaneous and inevitable. They and Holst do an excellent job of integrating the environment into the story, too - there's a chill throughout the entire film that makes the extra cold at the end bite extra hard, playing into how the details of the last sequences are unusual, but so thoroughly logical that what the characters do requires no explanation. Still, while each individual action makes sense, the story does perhaps seem to change directions perhaps one time too many, especially for someone who hadn't seen a preview and wasn't familiar with the real-life incident that inspired the film; for them, it may seem simply like the necessary steps to reach where the story had to go.

The story of the harpooner and the whale is brought out several times, too, and maybe could have been spaced out more, but it winds up being perfect, especially since it takes the entire film before the audience can decide whether it's about a corrupt system that must be defeated piece by piece or a righteous man eventually brought down by those who are, for all their power, less than him.

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originally posted: 07/16/11 06:21:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/07/12 The Taitor Decent foreign film, the kid actors were believalbe and it wasn't too long or dull 3 stars
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