Statistically speaking, most of us haven’t been to prison. But we all know what we’re missing out on. Be it what is laid bare in Scum or Ghosts Of The Civil Dead, Hunger or Midnight Express, The Shawshank Redemption or Riot In Cell Block 11, celluloid incarcerations make it official: prison sucks. Even the cool clink in Out Of Sight is broken out of, despite Don Cheadle and Albert Brooks being cell mates with George Clooney.
Into this hardened category comes King Of Devil’s Island, a Norwegian prison flick which locks down on the “bad boys” sub-genre. Juvenile detention has had a pretty good trot on screens, from Italian neo-realist pioneer Shoeshine (1946) to all-star Sleepers (1996). Our familiarity with all the inherent woes of young bloods being sent to the Big House means the Scandinavian stretch needs points of difference to rattle our cage.
Despite having some notable idiosyncrasies, this stylish yet stuffy drama holds fast to potent elements we know so well. Director Marius Holst is invitingly restrained about his assault on a fatally flawed precinct but vignettes about institutionalised ills are so matter-of-fact that incendiary impact is unfortunately subdued.
King Of Devil’s Island dramatically re-enacts actual incidents that went down in 1915 on the island of Bastoy, a penal colony south of Oslo. Think Shutter Island, but less crazy DiCaprio, more lambasted Norwegian lads. While Bastoy has since transformed into an isolated jail offering horse-riding and tennis as part of its experimental rehabilitation methods, back in the day it was a predictably hellish place.
Overseen by Mr Governor (Skarsgård, suitably inflected), Bastoy offers everything studied film fans know to be true about prisons: absolute power corrupts; ideals are warped and abused, inmates are denigrated; there will be blood. Instantly left with no doubt that new inmate Erling (Helstad) is going to stick it to The Man at his earliest convenience, viewers know the term of Holst’s frosty sentence will assuredly cleave to how seeds of revolt are sown.
Given we can guess what’s coming, vital for our engagement is the sophistication of composition. Characters are ostensibly stereotypes but, led by Skarsgård’s stoic dictator (who woefully misappropriates Christian values), the primarily youthful cast ensures we believe the atrocities unfolding. Particularly effective is Trond Nilssen, something of a mini-Skarsgård whose long-term prisoner embodies the contradictory messages of Bastoy. As control and torture engender bitter resentment, not grateful correction, the simmering to boiling point is richly offset by grimly handsome locations, John Andreas Andersen’s svelte cinematography, and intermittent sparks of Sigur Rós — as you do.
Although understatement can steal away heavy hits, King Of Devil’s Island capably demonstrates the problem of punishment being dealt with defiled motives. But a lifetime of jailhouse flicks has already ably convinced us of that.
Skarsgård is excellent and his young co-stars flesh out caricatured convicts. There is no escaping, though, how well acquainted we are with the tragic abuses on display.