"King of Devil's Island": Power and Resistance in Prison

Maladjusted but strapping: Benjamin Helstad in King of Devil’s Island.
Maladjusted but strapping: Benjamin Helstad in King of Devil’s Island.

A brooding, evocative Norwegian juvie-hell drama set in 1915, Marius Holst's movie lands us in a fresh locale: secluded, wintery Bastøy Island, home to the near-medieval "school" for "maladjusted boys," just as a new, unbreakable young felon (Benjamin Helstad) is admitted, much to the concern of the principal (Stellan Skarsgård). Indelible in its muster of pungent period flavor, the film follows the resonant Cool Hand Luke/Cuckoo's Nest formula pretty closely until the prison uprising (which this microgenre often avoids) blows up stirringly, but for better and worse. Holst's luridly titled opus (we're nowhere near the real Devil's Island in French Guiana) takes its sweet time expanding the inmates' characters, but in the end, they're as convincing as the preindustrial slave labor and the climactic trial on the frozen Skagerrak Strait. However, as a parable of totalitarian power and resistance, Devil's Island can be hypnotic, particularly given, or despite, the recent transformation of the real Bastøy into an open-air model for progressive prison mega-reform, complete with tennis courts, saunas, and cable TV.

 
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