Icelandic director Friderik Thor Fridriksson has been a respected director on the festival circuit for the past ten years but few know his work. A few years ago he was nominated for an Academy Award for his film "Children of Nature". Then he directed "Cold Fever," a film that achieved a small cult following. "Devil's Island", which got a very small release two years ago, is as good as anything he has done and proves that he has a good amount of talent.
The film is set in the 1950's and -- similar to the early films of Robert Altman -- consists of a rag-tag ensemble of colorful characters and features quirky gags and dramatic situations around one locale. In this case, it's four generations of one family living together in a squalid old Quonset hut, left by the Americans after World War II, in one of the lower class sections of Reykjavik.
The characters are set up at first as cartoon caricatures. Grandmother is an old bag with a cigarette dangling from her mouth and curlers in her hair, Grandfather is a good natured working class man with one day beard growth and the rest of the family fall into the various personality type categories that make for good laughs.
The film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral and in between are a number of odd ball adventures, as well as droll comedic situations and hapless tragedy striking at key moments. Characters seem to always find their true calling and then pay for it down the line.
After the wedding Baddi (Baltasar Kormakur) the favorite grandson goes to America to live with his mother. He leaves as a friendly, loving character but comes back a rebellious, hard drinking, black-leather-jacket-wearing lout. He makes life hard for everyone and to make things worse every night after tearing up the town he invites over his no-good friends to come wreck the house. Meanwhile Donnie, the introverted grandson, pines for the girl next door, and Dolly the bitterly unhappy granddaughter - who's married to a loser - has to take care of her mother's three children.
The film's tone is all over the place, pitched between black comedy and bleak drama, and it would be annoying if Fridriksson's direction were not so skillful. Best of all, he keeps the whole thing relatively unpredictable. One way he does this is by refusing to center the narrative on any one person. He specifically keeps things focused on the family, the environment and the conditions under which they live. And it becomes clear that the only way they can survive their circle of hell is to stick together.