Most evil-kid movies—The Omen, The Exorcist, the Village of the Damned films, and on and on back to The Bad Seed in 1956—are frank about their intentions. They’re horror flicks, and they want to freak you out. You know this when you set out to see them: It’s the reason you’re going. However, The Innocents, a new movie from Norway, is decidedly different. The picture has memorable horror flourishes—a good bit of blood, some painfully punctured flesh, a flash of broken bone—but its real subject is evil itself: What is it? Where does it come from? And why are some people ensnared by it while others slip free?
The writer-director, Eskil Vogt—nominated for an Oscar last year for co-writing The Worst Person in the World—has set his troubling story firmly in the world of children. There are grownups around in the suburban apartment building where it takes place, but as in real life, they’re distracted and not entirely present for their progeny. When one mother hears her daughter mysteriously murmuring in another room and asks who she’s talking to, and the little girl responds, “Someone who isn’t here,” her weary mom just says, “Okay.”
The four kids we follow are engulfed by the lassitude of long Scandinavian summer days, stuck at home while most of their friends are away on family vacations. The plot kicks in with an almost imperceptible click. Nine-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is idling around with a dark-eyed neighbor boy named Ben (Sam Ashraf), when he volunteers, out of nowhere, that he once had a slingshot and used it to pelt people he didn’t like. Then he shows Ida something unusual he can do. Picking up a stone off the ground, he holds it high in the air and then lets it drop; instead of falling straight down, though, the stone veers away at a right angle. Ida wonders how he did this. “I’ve been practicing,” Ben says.
Ida soon introduces Ben to her older sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). Anna is seriously autistic; she doesn’t speak and has no sense of touch. (Ida pinches Anna’s arm very hard to demonstrate this, and when there’s no response—no cry of pain—she lets Ben pinch her, too.) Rounding out this group is another little girl, named Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who has ambiguous powers of her own. Aisha can hear Anna’s thoughts, and they can converse with one another on a nonverbal wavelength. She says Anna is not indifferent to pain: “She cries inside.”
The proposition of the story is that young children are so alive to the wide world around them that everything seems magical—and that they are therefore able to take things that are truly magical in stride. But one of the four kids we meet here goes beyond casual sorcery. For no discernible reason, Ben begins drifting into darkness. He learns how to “fetch” people, as he puts it, summoning them to carry out orders that he devises, which soon involve injuries and even death (not all of it human—this is not a movie for cat lovers).
Is Ben “evil”? If so, why? And how did he get that way? Director Vogt, greatly assisted by his cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, creates a sunny pre-moral wilderness for his characters that we sense more than see. (Overt creepiness is provided by sound designers Gustaf Berger and Gisle Tveito, whose use of omnipresent industrial rumblings is a tribute to the late Alan Splet, David Lynch’s longtime sound artist.)
Vogt’s most remarkable coup, however, is the collection of extensively rehearsed performances he has elicited from his young cast—not one of whom gives off a “child actor” vibe. Rakel Lenora Fløttum, especially, manages to overcome her pale blonde hair and angel-blue eyes to convincingly play a very dangerous little girl. When we hear her say “We were just playing” after we’ve just watched her do something very unplayful to another kid—and then see the grownups on hand nodding their heads and moving on with their day—we know that sweet little Ida will probably never have need of a lawyer in future felony situations.