As I sit here pondering Evil, I am forced to ask myself "is this film sending a message that violence is not the way to settle disputes?" or is the message really "evil prospers when good men do nothing?" It is an interesting juxtaposition of ideas that is proficiently handled with a brilliant script by Swedish writer Jan Guillou (with Hans Gunnarsson, Mikael Hafstrom and Klas Ostergren).
Erik (Andreas Wilson) is a troubled teenager. When we first meet him he is in the process of getting himself expelled from a state school. He delivers a bloody beating to another teenager in the schoolyard. When he arrives home, we find that the source of his brutality might be the ruthless beating he suffers at the hands of his step-father (Johan Rabaeus). With the expulsion, Erik's chances of attending public school are gone, leaving his mother to sell precious heirlooms in order to send him to a prestigious private school.
Erik listens to his mother (Marie Richardson), does well in school and seems to be a decent kid at heart. The private school seems to offer a fresh start, but Erik quickly gets sideways with the "Sixth Form" upper classmen who make it their objective to teach him a lesson. The school employs a disciplinary system which is meted out by upper classmen. Cruel older boys who abuse their minor power to humiliate, debase or otherwise harass their younger charges. The leader of the pack, Otto (Gustaf Skarsgard) seems to be decent at first, but eventually shows his true colors. Erik will not submit to the student authority which causes the situation to continually escalate.
Erik has a redeeming skill. He is the most gifted swimmer in school history. A school that prides itself on their premiere sports programs. By setting new school records, Erik might take some of the heat off himself...or he may increase it. The petty hazing takes a new direction that leaves Erik powerless yet again. Hardened by years of abuse, Erik stands up to incredible abuse, which he appears to tolerate rather than fight back. He is fearful of getting expelled because he knows the sacrifices his mother made to send him to school. The kid is smart and has dreams to follow. When his best friend Pierre (Henrik Lundstrom) leaves school because of the hazing, Erik realizes (with the assistance of a teacher) that his priorities might be confused. Getting them straight puts him on the fast track to expulsion...the one thing he hoped to avoid.
Evil takes place in Sweden during the 1950s, not long after the end of World War II. Some anti-Jewish sentiments are expressed by one professor in the film, who the students describe as a Nazi. It created the starting point for a correlation in the film. The dark Nazi and the light free-thinking science teacher who eventually helps guide Erik's thinking. This opposition creates a distinct flavor of good vs. evil and brings to mind the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller during the period following the second world war:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out.
It also reminded me of the words penned by Edmund Burke, where he says "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." When this concept was introduced in the film I picked up on it slightly but didn't fully realize that we were dealing with opposing but equally important ideologies regarding force. While the film was certainly examining the pointlessness of violence, it turned suddenly and forced introspection into situations where one must make a stand, whether violence is a likely outcome or not. I like the way the script played those two ideas off each other and found a nice balance in the middle.
The characters were a little one dimensional, although a couple of them were a little more complex. Erik was obviously the most thoroughly explored character with acceptable short-comings. He was able to connect with the audience because of an underlying quality that seemed like a desire to please his mother (or maybe to avoid disappointing her)...I think that this characteristic is one easily identified with, allowing his character to meet the audience. It didn't hurt that Wilson is affable in the role, yet believably gritty. His gritty pretty-boy bad-boy persona is one that American film loves to utilize (because it works).
Evil contains quite a bit of hazing, some of it containing brutal beatings or treatment that would be considered torture by today's standards. That torture did not seem gratuitous, but the contextual nature of the abuse does not make it any less graphic. Younger viewers might be troubled by the severe beatings or other forms of harsh treatment. The film has mild sensuality but no nudity. The language is mildly coarse, with British curse words...which always seem cool than crude to me. No F bombs. The R rating might be high for violence related ratings...teenagers should be fine with this film, which has some exceptional themes. Run time is one hour, 53 minutes.
Evildidn't cover new ground. Boarding school coming-of-age movies with violence and underdogs have been done many times. This film seems set apart from the rest. For me, it may have been the lead character and the balance between opposing ideas. It probably didn't hurt that the film took its time developing the plot and creating suspense. The subplots were well structured to complement the whole. I enjoyed this film enough to highly recommend it. This film was also nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film. 8/10.
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