In a basic sense, Evil is very similar to Tsotsi. Both films feature a violent young man in the midst of moral transformation and each has its
own stock formula context —Evil's being the boarding school/prep school
genre —in which it is set. The difference, though, is in their density; Tsotsi has none. Evil on the other hand is rich with ideas and
purpose, not as encompassing of the broad concept its English title suggests but adequate in its pondering of the nature
of wickedness and the difficulty of a life devoid of violence.
A few weeks ago in my review of Tsotsi, I objected to both that film's probability of winning the foreign language Oscar and also to how it's nomination enshrined it as a representative of contemporary world cinema. Now Tsotsi has actually gone on to win the Best Foreign Film award, further discrediting the Academy and irredeemably tainting one of their last reputable categories - a category which had already been flawed enough by its confining rules for eligibility. Tsotsi is an example of the trend in bringing to America foreign movies that are supposedly more commercial because of their similarities to our own mainstream productions, a trend that encourages filmmakers of the world to favor conventional narratives and effects-heavy spectacle over contemplative and pronounced works in order to fit in with rather than compete with the common entertainment audiences are used to.
No time is more perfect, then, for Evil to finally arrive in the States. On the surface it seems very familiar, reminiscent of Hollywood films and not altogether inaccessible to American audiences, but it also has the depth and substance we expect from our imports. This Swedish film was also in the running for the foreign language Oscar, way back in 2004 when all five nominees were distinct and worthy and didn't appear to be the kind of obvious drama that, like many of our own movies released each December for the Academy's consideration, are more intent on winning something material than being something monumental. The Barbarian Invasions took home the prize that year, but Evil would have been a fine choice. And two years later it is still a fine choice, one recommended as an alternative to any of this year's nominees, and particularly to this year's winner.
The setup is simple and swift: Erik (Andreas Wilson) is a victim at home and a bully in the schoolyard. After an expulsion from public education, he is sent to Stjärnsberg Boarding School by his mother (Marie Richardson), who has sold off her valuables so that he may continue his studies, eventually go on to college, and so that he may escape his abusive step-father. Once he arrives at the campus, Erik's behavior is promptly improved, crushing any expectations of a slow, experiential rebirth influenced by good friends and better teachers. Erik does have a good friend (Henrik Lundström) and an amicable swimming coach (Rustan Blomqvist), but neither affects like the absence of malice.
Unfortunately for Erik, his new environment is not free of torment. At Stjärnsberg the upperclassmen have an oppressive authority over their juniors with all the discipline maintained by a council of older students. The most antagonistic are Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgård) and Dahlén (Jepser Salén), and they quickly direct their harsh attentions toward the new kid. At first Erik sees great benefit in challenging the order; by acting insubordinate his punishment is weekend detention, a fair excuse not to return home to beatings. As his defiance continues, however, the intimidation and terrorization grows.
The struggle not to give into his rage is hard for Erik, but his will to remain in school is intense. Were he to physically fight back he could be expelled, and not only would that put him right back with his step-dad, but it would break the heart of his mother, who was so generous in getting him a second chance. He is supported by the good friend, who is also his bookish roommate, Pierre, though he is encouraged by him more to discontinue all forms of confrontation, including drawing attention to the both of them with disobedience. Pierre refers to the passive resistance of his hero, Gandhi, while Erik insists on more active opposition.
Methods of non-violent dissent are deliberated and demonstrated throughout the film, but Evil is ultimately concerned with a history of violence, begat and begot in a never ending cycle. The tradition is not looked at with hopelessness. It is merely presented as inevitable, acknowledged for being no better or worse than peacefulness, just an inherent part of human existence. It is a showcase of the battle of natural tendency verses natural aspiration. Evil doesn't completely side with any one means of engagement, though, even while following Erik toward a conclusively narrow approach.
Despite the film's philosophical openness, it leads to a disappointingly tidy, tied-up ending, enough that an early departure for viewers is advised. Between the swift setup and denouement is an entertaining and thought-provoking story held up with crisp direction from Mikael Håfström, who followed up this film with the American picture Derailed, and an intelligent, compendious screenplay by Håfström and Hans Gunnarsson based on the novel by Jan Guillou. The characters rise above being the archetypal roles they fill and are fleshed out by accomplished performances, with the possible exception of the love interest (Linda Zilliacus), a nearly disposable dining hall employee who serves as an added obstacle in Erik's aim to not get kicked out —fraternizing with kitchen staff is prohibited— and distracts with an unnecessary romantic subplot that is wrapped up ridiculously.
One thing that is to be considered about any of the conventional aspects of Evil's story is that its source is —if we can believe anything like this these days—autobiographically based. Though Jan Guillou's mother has publicly stated that Erik's home life bore no likeness to Guillou's own, there is the possibility that much of it came out of actual experience. This is of interest because we may imagine that Erik goes on to live the amazing adulthood of the author, who infamously exposed Sweden's illegal Intelligence agency, IB, was imprisoned for espionage, found success with the Cog Rouge series of spy novels (dubbed the Swedish answer to James Bond), and then was initially denied entrance into America to attend the Oscars because of his being listed as a terrorist by the U.S. government. A sequel to Evil might not be a bad idea, actually.
In an allusion to Rebel Without a Cause, Evil stirs up comparisons with that film's star to its own, though Wilson is not so much a modern James Dean as rather an appreciable effect of Dean. He shares this quality with James Franco, an actor who portrayed the icon on television, and invites a correlation between Evil and the recent movie Annapolis, which starred Franco as an incorrigible freshman at the U.S. Naval Academy, who also is insubordinate to his elder classmates. Placing the two films side by side makes for extraordinary amplification of both Hollywood's inconsiderate weakness for storytelling and foreign pictures' attentive knack for it. Of course, Evil is now an ancient sampling of world cinema and maybe one day we'll see a dismal counterpart set in some other country's military school.