Cinema Signal:

Swedish Film Classics
by A. Kwiatkowski

. "Evil" (Aka, "Ondskan")

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 expulsion.

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 endeavors.

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 stardom.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Andreas Wilson letting his weapon go
and compromising his future.

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