In movies there’s no such thing as a good juvenile detention center. They’re always deeply abusive and dehumanizing prisons for young boys and the films about them are often punishing dramas. King of Devil’s Island is certainly no exception to this rule, depicting a harsh Norwegian hellhole filled with brutal teachers and headmasters dealing out psychological, physical, and even sexual abuse on the young boys who they’re supposed to be transforming from hooligans into model citizens. On a certain level the movie just offers more of the same if you’ve dabbled in this depressing genre before, but it’s also a fairly strong addition and a powerful flick if your stomach can withstand all the sub-zero misery.
Benjamin Helstad stars as a young teen sent to a harsh, isolated detention center on Bastoy Island. He’s immediately stripped of his name, referred to as C-19, and forced into a variety of demeaning physical tasks like pulling down massive tree trunks and pointlessly moving a pile of heavy rocks in the freezing cold. His classmates are all demoralized, but Helstad refuses to conform and is routinely punished by the teachers and looked down on by his teen dorm leader C-1 (Trond Nilssen). Things changes when C-19 and C-1 learn of the daily sexual abuse inflicted on one boy by the adult dorm master Brathen (Kristoffer Joner). The governor (Stellan Skarsgard) is told and while he appears shocked and claims to care for the boys, he’s blackmailed into essentially doing nothing. As often happens in these movies, it all peaks with a riot amongst the teens, but unlike others the Norwegian army is actually called in to clean up the mess. That incident and the movie as a whole was inspired by a true story, one of only two times that the Norwegian army fired on civilians.
This isn’t exactly a heartwarming crowd pleaser. It’s an unrelentingly dark drama filled with pain and humiliation, offering little redemption. However, it is undeniably affecting, with director Marius Hoist never flinching from his intense vision and gamely putting the audience through the wringer. He shoots in using a palate of cold colors and grays, heightening the tone of misery and the unforgiving winter conditions of the camp. The cast is universally strong with youngsters Helstad and Nilseen expertly creating angry young men deserving of audience sympathy. The most famous actor onscreen, Skarsgard, walks a delicate line between being an evil taskmaster while still imparting that he does care for the kids on some level. He’s his usual remarkable in a stand out scene when he furiously confronts his sexually abusive dorm master while still remaining unwilling to fully admit what happened. It’s some of the best proof of Skarsgard’s considerable talent.
The patient zero of all these juvenile detention movies is Alan Clarke’s remarkable 70s movie Scum, which he shot first for the BBC in 1977 and then remade with the same cast in 1979 when the frightened network refused to air it. That movie(s) is a viciously depressing masterpiece and all the similar films that followed are essentially remakes (only the underrated 2010 effort Dog Pound gave Scum the credit it deserves). The only major problem with The King Of Devil’s Island is that it essentially follows all of Scum’s plot beats and feels a little too familiar. The only major additions to the formula were Skarsgard’s character and the army ending and they just aren’t enough to distinguish it from the pack of predecessors.
That said, it’s still an undeniably powerful movie filled with excellent performances. In Norway it broke box office records and it’s certainly worthy of international attention. However, it’s also a big ol’ downer and an overly familiar one at that. If you’ve seen any juvenile detention movie before, you’ll know exactly what to expect and Holst definitely delivers 2 hours of gut wrenching misery. If you feel like dabbling in that experience, there are few things playing in theatres right now that will tear your heart out so effectively. Make your ticket buying decision accordingly.