Devil's Island

1996, NR, 103 min. Directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. Starring Ingvar E. Sigurdsson, Guomudur Olafsson, Sveinn Geirsson, Halldora Geirhardsdottir, Sigurveig Jonsdottir, Gisli Halldorsson, Baltasar Kormakur.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 19, 1999

America and Iceland may have been allies during the Second World War, but in this boisterous period piece from the director of Cold Fever, a new battle has begun in the frigid climes of Fifties-era Iceland, pitting the freewheeling rock & roll lifestyle of the Yanks against the traditional stoicism of the natives and it threatens to bring everything crashing down once again. Set in the blustery, marginalized Thule Camp left behind by the American armed forces after their defense of the country, Fridriksson's film examines everything from the generation gap to young love, and finds everything pretty much wanting. The camp, a series of ramshackle Quonset huts originally used as barracks for the G.I.s, is now home to a ragtag bunch of Icelandic refugees headed by the brothers Baddi and Danni (Kormakur and Geirsson), grandsons of the aged Toomy (Haldorsson), and his bizarre spouse of 40 years, Karolina (Jonsdottir). Devil's Island opens with the departure of the brother's mother to America. She has married an American serviceman and takes her leave of the camp for the more hospitable wheat fields of Kansas. Encouraged by his mother's bravura, Baddi follows not long after, spending a season with mom and stepdad in the states -- upon his return, though, he's a different man. Gone is the reticent, dark-haired older son, replaced by a leather-jacketed thug complete with duck's-ass haircut and liplocked sneer. Spouting a variety of American pop-culture soundbites (“Hey, dolly!”) that'd do Elvis proud, the aptly named Baddi imports a shark-finned '55 Chevy and begins tooling around the frozen barrens blasting rock & roll and generally making a nuisance of himself. Meanwhile, younger brother Danni is trying to woo the local neighbor girl, unsuccessfully, while leering to fly one of the old planes the Americans have left behind. A culture clash of epic proportions is in the works, and though Fridriksson's film is ostensibly a comic melodrama, it's also right up there with the WWF as one of the great bouts of the century. As in Cold Fever, Fridriksson has a real knack for getting inside his character's skins and flipping them inside out. The estranged Baddi and his new lifestyle threaten all that his elders hold dear, with the possible exception of Icelandic vodka, which everyone seems to be consuming as though Prohibition were right around the corner. The director makes the most of Iceland's spectacular sunsets, matching them against his stars' feeble obfuscations and besotted lives, and though much of the film is made up entirely of drunken shouting matches, Fridriksson clearly has a genuine fondness for these emotionally inept people. Not your run-of-the-mill Icelandic coming-of-age movie, Devil's Island is instead a loud, unruly slice of comic conflict that charms even as it chills.

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