Running Time: 114 minutes
UK Certificate: 15
With its complex cliques and networks, its authoritarian rules, and of course its bullying, the schoolyard has always been a useful, if not exactly salutary, training ground for anyone interested in the workings of power – and from ‘If ’ to ‘Election’, from ‘Dead Poets Society’ to Mean Girls, schools have often been the cinematic setting for political allegories dealing with the struggle of the individual within a closed and conformist system. The latest such film is Mikael Håfström’s ‘Evil’, based on the semi-autobiographical novel ‘Ondskan’ by Jan Guillou. Although Guillou is best known (at least in Nordic countries) as the author of a popular series of spy novels, his own after-school activities of rebellion have included being imprisoned for treason after publicly exposing a secret Swedish intelligence service’s illegal practice of keeping records on citizens’ political opinions. As someone still officially classified as a terrorist by the US, Guillou knows a thing or two about the difficulty of fighting against powerful authorities, which only adds to the political dimension of ‘Evil’.
Stockholm, the fifties. Though academically bright, violent pupil Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson) is expelled from his state school with the headmaster’s words “there’s only one word for people like you – evil… what you need is a good thrashing, and more”. In fact already Erik frequently receives a ‘good’ thrashing at the hands of his sadistic stepfather (Johan Rabaeus) – so he is packed off by his mother (Marie Richardson) to the traditionalist Stjärnsberg Boarding School, where discipline is left to the pupils themselves, who operate according to rigid hierarchies defined by age and family pedigree. Against the advice of his roommate and friend Pierre (Henrik Lundström), Erik publicly refuses to submit to the arbitrary punishments meted out by senior pupil Otto Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgård) and his fellow enforcers, and soon finds himself an unlikely champion of the tactics of civil disobedience against the school’s institutionalised abuse.
For a film whose very title flags a concern with ethical issues, its ‘hero’ Erik certainly cuts a morally ambivalent figure. He enters upon his campaign of non-violence not so much because he is a Gandhi-like pacifist, but rather because any blow that he strikes against his oppressors will automatically result in his expulsion and return home. The opening scene shows Erik effortlessly beating an opponent to a bloody pulp, so that great suspense is generated in subsequent scenes from the tension between what Erik actually does (or, more precisely, does not do), and what we know he is capable of doing. By the time Erik has found, and taken full advantage of, a loophole within the school system that allows him to resort to violence without fear of punishment, viewers have long been expecting, even desiring, such an explosion, and so it is that ‘Evil’ manipulates us into an uncomfortable complicity with Erik’s bone-breaking vengeance. In two later scenes he describes in chilling detail what he is going to do to someone, again arousing expectations in the viewer which are then frustrated, either because Erik does not follow through, or because Håfström chooses not to show what follows. In this way it is the viewer’s own morality which is being interrogated as much as Erik’s, in a film which appeals to the sadist and bully in us all.
‘Evil’ is less about how to be good than about how to exploit the laws of an authoritarian system to beat it (sometimes black and blue, even) at its own game. Erik’s environment and upbringing may explain his less savoury conduct, but this, the film implies, is equally true of the other ‘evil’ characters. In the end all that really distinguishes Erik’s violent action from that of, say, Otto or his own stepfather, is that Erik breaks bounds as well as he breaks heads, promising to bring change to the oppressive institutions of his day.
It's Got: Shit-slinging, abuse (domestic AND institutional), a class-defying romance, and greater moral complexity than first meets the eye.
It Needs: While Evil is never boring, it could easily have lost several of its more repetitive scenes with little damage to its integrity. Oh, and it is visually on the bland side (although so, they say, were the fifties).
Alternatives:3:15, Bully, Dead Poets Society, If…, Jude, Rebel Without A Cause
A morally complex tale of the 'class' struggle, set in a 1950s boarding school.