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'Evil' takes on school bullies but fails to pin them down

The title of ''Evil" makes it sound like a horror movie, and in a way it is. A slick, unflinching drama set in a Swedish boys school in the late 1950s, it explores the politics of power in rich young men, wondering whether bullies are born or made and whether they can ever be unmade.

Filmed in 2003 and nominated for a 2004 foreign language Oscar, the film's just now finding its way to US theaters; in the interim, director Mikael Hafstrom has gone Hollywood with the equally slick, entertainingly stupid Jennifer Aniston thriller ''Derailed." ''Evil" is just good enough that you feel the sellout.

Andreas Wilson, brooding and handsome, plays young Erik Ponti, who seems unreachably vicious in the film's opening scenes. Subjected to regular beatings from his control-freak stepfather (Johan Rabaeus), the teenager takes out his anger on weaker classmates; after one particularly ugly pummeling, the headmaster labels Erik ''evil in its purest form" and shows him the door.

Sent for his final year to a prestigious private academy called Stjarnsberg, the chastened Erik vows to his mother (Marie Richardson) that he'll be good. That's before he understands his new school's inflexible social hierarchy: Students in the dining hall are seated in order of peerage and wealth, and when Erik asks about the others, he's blandly informed, ''They don't belong here."

Upperclassmen like the ascot-wearing Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgard) and his toady Dahlen (Jesper Salen) enforce obedience in the younger boys with violent punishments for infractions real and imagined while the teachers, a mix of duffers and unrepentant Nazis, look the other way. Erik's response to his tormentors is one they've never encountered. He simply says no.

The hero's best friend, a glasses-wearing wonk named Pierre (Henrik Lindstrom), references Gandhi's passive resistance, but there's something spookier about Erik's refusal to play by the rules. He knows he could reduce the older boys to entitled pulp but chooses not to. This intransigence makes Silverhielm and Dahlen insane with fury, which they take out on Pierre and other weaker prey. Something has to give.

Based on an autobiographical novel by the Swedish writer-journalist Jan Guillou, ''Evil" is extremely watchable, even if it never goes as deep as it should. Hafstrom keeps the story moving propulsively forward, helped by Peter Mokrosinski's fluid camerawork, and the characters are well cast and played to a man and boy.

Yet a certain familiarity dogs the movie. ''Evil" works within the boundaries of prep school stories from ''Tom Brown's Schooldays" to ''Young Torless" to ''Dead Poets Society," and while it's surely not intentional, Wilson's resemblance to Brendan Fraser in 1992's ''School Ties" is eerie. (As for Silverhielm, didn't they call him Neidermeyer when he was in ''Animal House"?) Erik's gathering head of steam echoes classic westerns and ''The Quiet Man."

Well, what of it? Just this: ''Evil" skates melodramatically along these conventions without providing any larger insight into either the characters or their society. Is Silverhielm naturally evil or forged by the system? Is Erik warped by a fight that, for him, never ends? Because the movie poses such questions without illuminating them, its central character remains out of reach. ''Evil" ends with a freeze-frame that begs comparison with Truffaut's ''The 400 Blows," but by then it's too late: The hero's gone blurry.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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