Devil's Island

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Devil's Island

In 1996, as his Cold Fever was charming patrons of American arthouses, Icelandic director Fridrik Thór Fridriksson put the finishing touches on a very different film: Devil's Island, his adaptation of an Einar Gudmundsson novel. Unlike the expansive, internationalist Cold Fever—which followed a Japanese businessman halfway around the world as he sought to soothe his dead parents' spirits and stave off vulgar, violent American tourists—Fridriksson's follow-up feature homes in on a small Icelandic town in the '50s after many U.S. servicemen have shipped out. Baltasar Kormákur and Sveinn Geirsson play native-born brothers whose mother has fled to America with a soldier, leaving the boys living in an abandoned army barracks with an overtaxed grandfather and a perpetually ranting grandmother. The thuggish Kormákur visits his mother in Kansas City and returns driving a Cadillac, sporting a leather jacket, listening to rockabilly, and dropping greaser slang into his speech. He terrorizes his family with late-night drunken revels, which they endure because he has money and charisma, but the home dynamic inverts when younger sibling Geirsson goes to pilot school and becomes the new head of the household. Einar Karason's script is episodic and overly focused on the quirkier aspects of Gudmundsson's story: Grandpa drives a hearse, Grandma accuses everyone of being a "Pharisee" or "tax collector," and townsfolk of all ages hang out at the local rockhouse to see who's dancing with the magician or the shot-putter. Fridriksson captures it all in a naggingly elliptical editing style, where much of the action seems to take place between the jump cuts. But a moody atmosphere redeems Devil's Island. As in Cold Fever, much of the film's strange magic is bound up in its muted color palette, with its sepia haze trapped like dust particles in beams of light. The zigzag patterns of the characters' lives don't spill out into any especially revelatory place, but Fridriksson gets impressive mileage out of the American TV shows, music, and fashions that settle onto his landscape. From the words they borrow to the room they inhabit, the sullen citizens of this icy community spend their time dining cheaply on the bones of a culture that isn't their own.