Norway's once-infamous Bastøy Prison, an isolated island reformatory that housed "maladjusted" young boys, was the sort of frigid hell Joseph Stalin might have endorsed. Aside from grueling manual labor and threats of solitary confinement, Mother Nature was the prison staff's primary deterrent against escape. In operation from 1900 – 1953, Bastøy's confines were surrounded by dense forests, jagged rock faces, and barren fields, extreme locations made exponentially worse by the constant threat of icy wind and snow. Like Alcatraz, it was a prison primed to strip even the worst offender of their will to challenge authority.
Marius Hoist's sturdy genre film King of Devil's Island captures Bastøy right down to the smallest architectural detail, including the inmates' crowded living quarters and stark mess hall. Despite the institution's harsh reputation, newly arrived inmate Erling (Benjamin Helstad), the proverbial fly in the ointment every prison film needs, tells his judicial cabin leader Olav (Trond Nilssen) that "Bastøy is nothing but a small rock in the water." In a single moment, Erling diminishes the power of his cage and envisions a world beyond the perimeter walls, in turn infecting the rest of his brethren with the same rebellious attitude. Erling's strength and striking physicality create an ideological domino effect that the prison's warden, Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård), and his creepy second-in-command, Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner), spend the better part of the film trying to squash. As with most films about warring ideologies, the battle between the two sides begins small then escalates in brutality and scope, ultimately boiling over in sudden bursts of violence.
King of Devil's Island hits the familiar plot points most prison films cherish (escape attempts, riots, chase sequences), but Hoist's keen directing abilities prove that worn-out film genres can be advanced with the right casting and setting. Most impressive is the nuanced friendship that develops between Erling, a rough and tumble bruiser, and his repressed counterpart Olav, their relationship defined by small narrative threads that repeat throughout the story. One great example is when the pair becomes inspired by Erling's previous job as a harpooner to create a fictional narrative about an injured whale whose survival and durability mirrors their own complicated struggle with Bråthen, a child molester whose actions ultimately drive the boys to revolt.
Since it favors broad narrative strokes, symbolism runs rampant in the film, as when Bestyreren compares the hierarchy of power on the island to that of a ship, something he thinks Erling will understand considering his time as a sailor. The analogy is referenced throughout (maybe too many times), but it provides the necessary structure for Hoist to build toward a fantastic montage sequence where the boys collectively rebel against their unjust overseers. As Erling, Olav, and the rest of the inmates grab shovels, ice picks, and axes, the shift in power (and momentum) is wonderfully palpable, the rage they express fitting in every respect.
It's a bit unsatisfying that nearly every adult character in King of Devil's Island represents some shade of cowardice or deviancy. While Hoist affords the always-excellent Skarsgård necessary leeway to find complexity in his character, the same can't be said for Joner, whose one-note characterization just comes across as the traditional evil pedophile/villain. Thankfully, Helstad and Nilssen create incredibly detailed and contrasting personas that evolve as the film progresses. Their haunting final moment together, set on a crumbling sheet of ice, has real weight and tension not because of the extreme surroundings, but because of the shared responsibility each character feels for the other.