A captivating yet not necessarily original drama, "Ondskan" ("Evil") was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2004 Academy Awards and probably deserved as much. A Swedish boarding school drama about a young, violent man who vows to change his ways by starting fresh, the movie explores resistance to conformity and control via peaceful means - and the price such resistance can inflict on everyone.
The movie starts out with the bully Erik Ponti beating a schoolmate nearly to death, and then quickly exploring the reasons why he has become who he has (an abusive father). In an effort to save her son, his mother sells much of her belongings to pay for a private school, to where he will live and have the chance to start anew. He vows to do just that, but finds it increasingly difficult as time goes on. The upperclassmen at the school have a strict and ruthless means of controlling the younger students, through ridicule, embarrassment and violence. Being the stubborn person Erik is, he does not conform to their wishes, and is immediately branded a rebel by the ruling older students. At first they try to punish him physically, but he does not give in to their means. Then, they decide to strike where he can't defend himself - his friends. As the pot boils, Erik attempts to find a resolution without turning into the person he knows he can be.
In essence, films like this have existed for decades. The younger students at a boarding school and treated like dirt by their older classmates, and some new kid arrives to change the rules. But "Evil" is less about situation than inner strength, and that is where it sets itself apart - it explores what makes a person tick, and the capabilities of a person to change. At the beginning, the headmaster calls Erik "evil," but is he really evil or is his personality just a matter of circumstances? If he is evil, is evil relative? After all, though he is the same person when he goes to the new school, he no longer is the evil one.
At the same time, the movie works on a purely entertainment level as well. Director Mikael Håfström engages the audience quickly by allowing us to warm up to the main character and swiftly introducs us to the real villains of the film. You grow to hate the upperclassmen quickly, and the suspense builds to what you know will inevitably happen. At times you want to shout to Erik to just beat the crap out of the guys, and it's almost infuriating when he doesn't - but that just shows how emotional the film can be.
If "Evil" could improve anywhere, it could have been in the father-son dynamic between Erik and his abusive parent. The movie throws this element at us too quickly at the beginning of the movie, and we are supposed to just accept this as the reason why Erik is the way he is. A little more examination of their relationship would have helped make this movie seem like more than a statement that "abuse causes children to become bullies," which is a rather broad statement to make. Also, the transition from bully to perfect student was a bit confusing - after a hair cut and a minute of screen time, it took me a moment to realize that the same character was still on the screen. A few more minutes of development might have helped show the transition from "old Erik" to "new Erik."
"Evil" is a well-done movie with good themes and an entertaining premise. In the scheme of things, the story isn't anything new, but good acting and a quality screenplay set it apart. And, the fact that the main character's name is Erik doesn't hurt either. It's even spelled the same way.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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