A title like Evil raises a lot of expectations. Here's a subject that's central to understanding the human condition, particularly in the 20th century, and especially in the post-World War II period in which the film takes place, when the world was left to ponder what the Nazis had been able to accomplish. But it's a stretch to say that Evil, based on an autobiographical account of a young man's trials in an authoritarian boarding school, reads as a Nazi allegory or even much of a meditation on evil or fascism, which simply exist without cause. In fact, the film more closely resembles a women-in-prison movie: The hero wants to do his time quietly, gets put through a battery of sadistic rituals with homoerotic undertones, and eventually decides to take action. Perhaps director Mikael Håfström wants to address those who erroneously believe that pacifism is always the right response to aggression, but the film really isn't that thoughtful. It's more about giving rich bullies the same comeuppance afforded to sneering wardens with bullwhips, and on those superficial grounds, it's reasonably gripping.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film a couple of years ago and only now slipping into theaters, Evil stars Andreas Wilson as a taciturn rebel who gets expelled from state school for violent behavior. His mother scrapes together enough money to send him to the prestigious Stjärnsberg Boarding School for boys, under the stipulation that he stays out of trouble. However, trouble quickly finds him: The upperclassmen, led by student-council head Gustaf Skarsgård, have established an arbitrary set of rules and punishments designed to intimidate and humiliate the younger kids. Wilson's egghead roommate (Henrik Lundström) advises him to keep a low profile, but Wilson remains too proud to subjugate himself to Skarsgård and the other rich kids, which leads to consequences as minor as weekend detention and as grim as having a bucketful of feces dumped in his room.
Taking a page from Gandhi, Wilson absorbs an inhuman amount of punishment, but when the relentless attacks extend to Lundström and the Finnish kitchen worker (Linda Zilliacus) he's romancing in secret, the other shoe drops hard. Håfström, who recently laid an egg with the Jennifer Aniston-Clive Owen thriller Derailed, does a fine job of bottling the tension that escalates with each new act of cruelty. As the story unfolds, it's clear that there will be a moment when the hero will have to stands his ground and fight back, whatever the consequences, and watching this time bomb tick away is never less than riveting. Too bad Evil doesn't make sense of his explosion.