Published Mar 15, 2012Seeing as Norwegian director Marius Holst tends towards stories about male rage and the coming-of-age of young men into a cold, indifferent world, helming a film about the infamous and foreboding Bastøy Prison seems a perfect fit. The Alcatraz-esque Island, wherein maladjusted young men were detained and subjected to gruelling manual labour and possible solitary confinement in the early part of the 20th Century, features an oppressive and claustrophobic environment engulfed by the harshness of frozen water and icy winds, making for the ideal cinematic vacuum for warring beliefs to collide.
Acting as the catalyst for change within the genre prison film is notorious, newly arrived inmate Erling (Benjamin Helstad), whose irreverent attitude and foreboding physical presence act as thorns in the side of oppressive, myopic prison warden Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård), and a catalyst for change amongst the other prisoners. His indifference towards threats and refusal to acquiesce despite endless physical punishments and intensive labour assignments match the recurring, and arguably strained, metaphor of a harpooned whale that refused to die in his outside life as a sailor.
Inevitably, the standard prison movie clichés emerge, such as failed escape attempts, corrupt authority figures and riots, but as the quiet clashing of ideologies escalates into a full-blown physical war, Holst maintains a tone of subdued dignity reliant on the grayish hues of the frigid geography. Similarly, the central relationship involving Erling and the long subdued cabin leader, Olav (Trond Nilssen), progresses mostly through metaphor and implication, with Erling acting as the impetus behind personal catharsis and self-awareness in Olav.
If there's a flaw, it's that of complex character interactions. While the stoic handling of male archetypes in the battle for standard-issue male martyrdom implies a depth of unspoken understanding and dignity, the lack of connection, or reaction, to disappointments or change leaves a void where some emotional engagement is intended. Resultantly, the heavily dramatic climax, where Olav and Erling share a wordless gaze intended to speak multitudes, has to rely, in part, on the haunting and simplistic piano score to resonate as strongly as it does.
Still, these minor, traditionally male setbacks don't hurt the intensity and sub-textual effectiveness of King of Devil's Island, which is a truly magnetic and mature work. Rather, they hold it back from achieving greatness from outside the insular lexicon of male posturing. (Evokative)