Home Video Hovel- King of Devil’s Island, by Aaron Pinkston
Film Movement may take backseat to the Criterion Collection, but they have proven over the years to be a great resource and collection for film lovers. The subscription service sends its members a new DVD in the mail each month — typically a foreign or independent release that has earned acclaim on the festival circuit but has little chance of being seen by a mainstream American audience. I have had my eye on Film Movement for a while, but haven’t jumped at paying for the club due to my own financial situation and the fact that many of their releases shortly follow on Netflix Instant. Still, though, I probably wouldn’t have been aware of many of their films without the Film Movement release, and that would be a shame. Film 12 of Year 9, King of Devil’s Island, is no exception.
Released in Norway in 2010, King of Devil’s Island takes place on an island reform school for young men who have committed a variety of criminal acts. The film opens with the arrival of a new “student” C19, a whale harpooner who was found guilty of murder. As C19 is subjected to his harsh new life, he makes bonds with his fellow inmates and confronts the cruel injustices on the island. Its pace is slow, constantly building tension within the group of your inmates and between the inmates and governing body of the Everything leads to a stunning third act where the two young protagonists risk their lives escaping the island over a frozen fjord.
King of Devil’s Island is primarily a reform school drama, but brilliantly takes themes from prison escape films, the British “angry young man” movement, and coming of age stories. Though it is not told in an elliptical way, it smoothly transitions between these genres and themes from scene to scene. Through the first half of the film, it is almost exclusively a prison escape film, but as soon as it no longer needs to use this narrative, it evolves into something else thematically. It also manages to work with these many themes without compromising the effectiveness of any — it is truly more than the sum of its parts.
The film doesn’t strongly debate any issues surrounding the justice of young criminals (something a lesser film would have certainly done), but it beautifully attaches its audience to the young characters — and it’s not just that there are horrible things happening to them, so we feel sympathetic. We know that they are criminals of varying degrees, and we often see their violent behavior against each other and contempt for authority. But the strength of performance and writing allows us to see them as people — troubled people, sure, but people who need guidance to better themselves, not a world that works on violence and strict discipline. The final documentary images of real boys on the island during the time the film was set adds another dimension of realness to these characters.
While Stellan Skarsgård gets top billing on the DVD, he is a true supporting character as the headmaster of the reform school. His performance is what we’ve come to expect from Skarsgård — it is equal parts menacing and cold, and always assured. Usually in films that take place at reform or boarding schools, the headmaster character is played strictly evil; here, the character is certainly a villain, but there are many moments that provide great depth. By the end of the film, he has made too many poor decisions to have respect for him, but we do see him struggle with his choices and making efforts to correct bad situations, even if he is not directly addressing the true problems.
There aren’t any special features associated with King of Devil’s Island on the disc, but Film Movement’s release does provide some interesting bonuses. On the inside of the case’s slipcover there are two short essays titled “Why we selected this month’s film” and “Statement from director Marius Holst” which are short yet insightful reads. Also, on every Film Movement disc, there is a short film — in this case a 15 minute short from the United Kingdom called Bale. I’m not sure if its specific addition was purposeful, but Bale is a good companion piece to King of Devil’s Island. Like the feature film, it deals with young men living with the consequences of violence against each other. It is a wonderful short story, the appropriate length for its narrative and nice inclusion on the disc.