Set in the 1950s in Sweden, Evil is a movie about the travails of a teenage boy at an abusive boarding school. I found it to be good but not great both in terms of trying to get across a worthwhile message, and in simply having a compelling plot where you care about what happens next and you have a rooting interest in certain characters.
It is established at the outset that the protagonist is habitually both a recipient and perpetrator of violence.
His stepfather beats him mercilessly for no particular reason except sadism and being in love with his own authority. (This bothers his mother enough to go into the next room to play the piano so she doesn’t have to be traumatized by the sounds of the beatings. It doesn’t bother her enough to intervene physically, to intervene verbally, to leave her husband and take the boy with her, or to later express support or sympathy for her son, or criticism of her husband’s behavior.)
The boy is shown viciously beating the crap out of a kid at school. There is no explanation as to what precipitated it; the implication—or at least what I inferred—is that he’s a violent, out of control thug.
Which is not at all his character the rest of the movie. That discrepancy stood out to me. I’m not sure if we’re to understand that he changes dramatically by his next stop, or to reassess that incident as one where perhaps he had been wronged or was acting defensively in some sense. Or maybe it’s just sloppy filmmaking. Maybe it’s merely supposed to show that he’s got the capacity to enforce his will through violence if he should choose to, and the filmmaker happened to use an exaggerated way of doing that.
His mother hocks what she can and manages to get him into a ritzy all-male boarding school. The situation is set up as starkly as possible that this is his last chance. He’s been in so much trouble, been thrown out of so many schools, gone through so much of whatever money his mother could spare, that he either behaves himself and makes it through the one school year he needs to graduate at his new school, or he will never graduate and he has no future.
So he’s pretty much out of leverage when things go bad at his new school, which they almost immediately do. He evidently has accepted that being kicked out is not an option, and that he must choose only among whatever other options happen to be available, or creatable.
The school turns out to be one of those hazing, inhumane, hierarchical hellholes, really no different from an abusive juvenile prison, except that it’s for the rich instead of the poor. For all intents and purposes, the powers that be have given the upperclassmen free rein to “break” the newcomers and make them little more than slaves. (When younger students are slapped and punched in the dining hall, the adults don’t even look up from their meals.) Discipline is enforced through verbal abuse, humiliating tasks, and physical beatings.
There is no pretense of fairness. The arbitrariness of the punishment is their way of establishing even greater authority. It doesn’t matter if you broke no rule and did all that you were told; the whim of the upperclassmen takes precedence over any of that.
Beatings are administered by two or more against one. Again, there is no honor or fairness to the discipline. It’s just raw power.
The advice from veteran victims is to do nothing to call attention to oneself. Don’t try to get on the upperclassmen’s good side or impress them; try to be invisible.
Although the protagonist is in his final year of high school, he is new there and thus is placed with those on the lowest rung of the ladder.
The remainder of the movie is the story of his efforts to not let them break him. He refuses to play the game in ways inconsistent with his self-respect, but he refrains from striking an upperclassmen or doing anything that can get him expelled. Always he is walking a fine line, being defiant but not quite insubordinate enough that he can be kicked out.
His roommate, who becomes a good friend of his, tells him that instead of being a tough guy, he should be like Gandhi. To which he replies, “Oh, you mean resist!” thus indicating that he has at least some grasp of Gandhi’s philosophy, unlike his roommate who seems to have equated Gandhi’s nonviolence with simple passivity in the face of evil.
And in a way he is somewhat Gandhian in how he struggles against the injustice. Not purely so, or even close, but a lot more than you’d expect from a kid used to nothing but violence and humiliation.
He’s Gandhian in the way he’ll take even severe beatings without striking back or giving in.
He’s not Gandhian in that he sometimes later does strike back when he can get away with it, he harbors plenty of ill will toward his opponents, and there are some forms of suffering—most notably expulsion—that he’s not willing to endure for his principles.
So not a saint, but pretty darn impressive.
Actually more than Gandhi he reminds me of the guy from Kung Fu. He knows he’s physically capable of destroying his adversaries in a fight, but he won’t do so until every other option is exhausted, when all but a total pacifist would agree that violent self-defense is righteous.
One thing he discovers—and he’s mostly not too harsh with people about this—is that even those on his side don’t come through for him the way one might hope. He seems to accept that when push comes to shove, he can rely on no one but himself. The others do what they can, but are too weak to do more.
And it is weakness, rather than malice or betrayal. The one adult from the staff that promises assistance mostly doesn’t come through, and is embarrassed and apologetic about it. The girl he has a little clandestine romance with does not stand by him when the cost gets too high. His roommate proves to be his best ally, but he too eventually falls by the wayside.
Of course his mother is an even earlier example of someone who is in a sense on his side, but who is too weak to stand with him against evil.
In the end he is able to dish out some righteous violence without destroying his future, and he does so. It would be nice if he could have stayed his hand even then, but again, a perfect Gandhian he is not. Does he see further development in that direction as the ideal? Possibly. Before administering his final beating, he tells his mother “This is the last time,” like he will now end this chapter of his life and return evil for evil no more. (One suspects, though, that it’ll be like the fellows at the prison where I used to volunteer, who joked about all the guys who insist that after just one more big score, they’ll go straight for good.)
I despise that kind of hazing environment by the way. I read a review that said the movie raised dilemmas about institutions like that, but I don’t see the dilemma. I don’t see that there are roughly equal considerations pulling in both directions, because I think the “toughen males up with violent and humiliating rites of passage” side has no merit to it. To me it’s flagrant child abuse, no more, no less. There’s no dilemma to it, any more than there’s a dilemma about Auschwitz.
One thing I found notable late in the movie is when the protagonist confronts one of the worst of the sadists, and the guy tells him that the whole series of events has tormented him just as much. The consequences for him of failing to uphold his position in the hierarchy would have been every bit as intolerable as the consequences of being broken would have been to the protagonist.
Maybe true, maybe not, but it’s interesting that that’s the way he perceives the situation, that far from welcoming a chance to torture someone, he’d rather avoid the stress and headaches of having to deal with insubordination. It sounds like he too would rather the lowerclassmen just be invisible and refrain from calling any attention to themselves.
In the end I wasn’t fascinated by every aspect of Evil, and I didn’t agree that the protagonist was quite the hero he’s evidently intended to be (since I’m more for Gandhi than Kung Fu). But I’m on board enough with enough of what this film is doing that I believe it’s worthy of a recommendation.