EVIL (Mikael Håfström, 2003)

No one who has seen the marvelously satirical, cautionary If . . . . (1968), the first installment of Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy, will have much use for the pitiful shenanigans of Evil (Ondskan), a glum Swedish boys’ posh boarding school melodrama set in the 1950s. Were it not for Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989), this film, based on Jan Guillou’s autobiographical novel, would be the single worst high school movie I’ve seen. Thin as tissue paper, heavily ironic, cruelly violent, it was nominated for a 2004 foreign-language film Oscar. Indeed, it took the Guldbagge Award as best film of the year.

The protagonist is 16-year-old Erik Ponti, a thug on his public school playground, the film simplistically implies, because his ice-blooded stepfather routinely takes a strap to him at home. We more than get the point—this is how the script by Mikael Håfström and Hans Gunnarsson, and the direction by Håfström proceed throughout—when, after expelling him, Erik’s principal calls him “evil” and remarks what a good thrashing he needs. We are meant to cry out in unison: If only the principal knew! But it’s unlikely the case that Erik is a bully at school because he is bullied at home, or even because his loving mother is rendered ineffectual at protecting him due to the patriarchal bias socially in place. There must be more to it; but Håfström isn’t about to tell us. Not a lot of thought has gone into his direction of this slack, uninvolving film.

In truth, Erik is the most incorrigible youngster in films since Matt Damon played Bad Will Hunting. Mr. Rogers himself might be motivated to take a strap—possibly a tire iron—to this rude, vicious smart aleck. Erik’s mother sells her personal stuff in order to get her son into the exclusive Stjärnsberg Boarding School. She is abetted in this rare act of rebelliousness by a lawyer friend who is possibly her lover and almost certainly in love with her. Before sending the boy to the place that will hopefully guarantee his future, this lawyer invites Erik to contact him should he get into trouble at school or otherwise need help. Bad stepfather/good surrogate father: that is the schematic way in which this movie unfolds.

At Stjärnsberg, Erik does an about-face that defies belief. He wants to be left alone, to raise his marks, to get through his classes, to win for the swim team, to make his mom proud. I am glad that Håfström believes that this sadist can quickly, easily put the brakes on his penchant for mayhem and antisocial behavior, but I have my doubts. In any case, irony of ironies, Erik himself becomes the object of nastiness in a school where administration and teachers traditionally defer on matters of discipline to the upperclass terrors who more or less run the place. Erik’s defiance whets their appetite to break the new, middle-class lad.

Erik befriends only one boy: his smart, non-athletic roommate, Pierre, who advises him not to make waves and counsels him to practice passive resistance. At this point we get another point: Sweden’s neutrality during the war finessed avoidance of a necessary moral confrontation. Irony of ironies, it is when Erik’s nemesis, upperclassman Otto Silverheilm (played by Gustaf Skarsgård, Stellan’s son), starts bullying Pierre that Erik gets into the ring, so to speak. Belatedly he recalls the lawyer’s offer of help and together they effect the legal means to take the school and everybody bad in it to decisive task. Back home, when his stepfather reaches for the strap, Erik stands up to him and tosses him out. Will Mom’s lawyer-friend handle the divorce?

A bucket of feces figures in one of the scenes of unpleasant punishment at Stjärnsberg. Fitting. This whole movie is a bucket of feces.

Every character in the film is a cliché. There really isn’t a single good performance, but Andreas Wilson, who plays Erik, is strikingly handsome and charismatic.

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