Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson) is a problem kid whose tendency toward settling
arguments is with his fists. Built tight and hard, his fists are weapons of
devastation. When he knocks a fellow schoolboy senseless, despite grades
that show a high scholastic potential, his pattern of violence results in
The source of his violent nature lies at home. On the slightest provocation,
and a made-up one if necessary, his abusive, controlling step-father (Johan
Rabaeus) comes unglued. Seeming to be constantly competing with Erik for
position and authority, demanding a perfection he, himself, never knew, this
excuse for a man delights in commanding Erik into the bedroom to be whipped
with a leather belt.
Which gives Erik a fighter's ability to sustain pain. But this doesn't serve
his long term goals of advancing to the sixth form and assuming a respectable
role in society. His mother (Marie Richardson), whom he adores and wants to
protect, finds the solution by selling her heirlooms in order to send him to
Stjarnsberg, a posh boarding school for the pampered and rich. This
is his last chance to avoid becoming just another delinquent. A young man of
extreme inner discipline, he vows to do well and advance his scholastic
But his challenges are just beginning. This school's student hierarchy is
loaded with rules and penalties for its struggling juniors. He's repeatedly
forced to bottle up his anger and instinctive reactions to unjust demands.
Instead he simply refuses to submit to the humiliations the sadistic seniors
impose on their lower-level subjects. These privileged future leaders brook
no rebellion and contrive escalating punishments for any sign of resistance
-- as violent and degrading as they are cowardly. These stalwart citizens
are more guilty of disgraceful conduct than anyone they accuse.
While the setting is "Dead Poets Society", the study of a charismatic teen
controlling his impulses and meeting physical and mental cruelty with calm
resistance and submission to pain, is its own unique character study that
becomes one of the most powerful and mesmerizing film experiences this year
(2004) and last. Wilson doesn't just brood his way through the struggles, but
displays an utterly convincing show of restraint. In physical appearance, he
is built for speed swimming and a lightning quick fighting, the sort of man
that could easily make well-protected cowards cringe and turn this film into
a powerful study of mental control.
Which makes the title intriguing. To whom is the term meant to apply?
When Erik comes home after being expelled, his mother can't find any other
word to understand his violent behavior than "evil." But we then learn
that she plays her piano as loudly as she can to mask the sounds of her
husband beating her son. Where does the evil lie in this dysfunctional
household? And then, in the presence of a cabal of sons of the very wealthy
and the institution that so easily accepts a depraved and shameful system of
subordination that embraces degradation and physical outrage, who is evil in
the darker, outside world?
The weakness of the script's message emerges as you realize that Erik's
ultimate revenge is purposely being held back for dramatic purposes. Well
before he does so, you scream for him to use his power to instill the fear of
god into those most guilty of protecting their perch of superiority through
the application of pain and debasement. When, at last, he catches his arch
nemesis Otto Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgard) alone in a field between the
campus and the stables, and demonstrates exactly how his power to exact
revenge could have been applied at the time of his choosing, you realize
there's been some exaggerated dramatization here.
Director Mikael Hafstrom has assembled a pretty much perfect cast to express
his dark societal cruelties but leaves some parts unexpressed. There seems
to be a bond of understanding between mother and son but, with such limited
enunciation, her motivations and mixed loyalties -- key to the central
dilemma -- are left for some psychological guesswork. Gustaf Skarsgard and
Jesper Salen are excellent as purveyors of violence in the cause of
cowardice, while Pierre Tanguy is credible as Erik's rich, weak roommate.
Any compromises of reality or explanation can be forgiven because of the
ultimate power in the film's message of restraint and how the force of
intellect and discipline may subdue unchallenged domination. Hafstrom's
control of this balance and Wilson's remarkable portrayal are penetrating and
effective. "Evil" is a grabber, and a keeper. Wilson is worthy of global
~~ Jules Brenner