Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson of Filmspotting podcast fame did not like I Saw the Devil, not even a little bit. It was not what they were hoping to see -- they were hoping to see something else, and this film was not that something else.
Adam, for example, declares
there are no insights into the nature of evil, there's just a lot of pain and anguish ...But what if the film is saying that evil is a condition that produces lots of pain and anguish in the interactions of people? I would say that is exactly what the film is saying, and saying quite clearly: that evil occurs when people produce pain and anguish in one another.
Both reviewers go on to explain that what they were hoping to see was something redeeming in all the evil the film presents -- progression, growth, lessons learned, a deserved chastening or two, a conclusion featuring a wistful stroll into a sadder and wiser sunset by at least one of the main characters.
Here's the thing: this is not trying to be that film; it is not telling that story. There are plenty of films that feature a dramatic arc of roughly that sort -- take True Grit (2010) for an example of a well-executed one, or take Taken for an example of a so-so one -- but I Saw the Devil makes precisely the statement about evil that the filmspotting guys accuse it of making, namely, that a wrathful seeking of vengeance creates a self-accelerating cycle of pain and a widening circle of broken minds and mangled bodies. Full stop.
The film suggests that rage-fueled evil burns through people indiscriminately; that while rage and hatred are motivating the choices people make, nothing is learned, and the choices become less and less comprehensible to observers. On this note, Matty sharpens his criticisms in an especially odd way:
He [the antagonist of I Saw the Devil] is not Anton Chigur from No Country for Old Men, not in the least bit; where you at least have some insight into what is driving these characters. ... Here there is no depth to these characters, it is completely flat.As to the latter part: exactly! It is completely 'flat' in the sense that as the film's action proceeds, it becomes ever harder to detect any rationale for the shocking deeds being carried out -- the two main characters increasingly demonstrate nothing but hatred for one another and indifference (at best) toward anyone or anything that impedes their rage. Hatred and the wish for vengeance become the only notes anyone sounds. Precisely.
As to the Anton Chigur comparison, Matty is exactly wrong. Where in No Country for Old Men is any clear indication of what drives Chigur's relentless, wanton cruelty? Both the film and the book announce rather plainly, over and over, that Chigur lies beyond any moral, practical, or pecuniary calculus. Chigur is "something you don't understand," as the Sheriff muses; one of his victims compares him with the bubonic plague; he openly mocks everyone who bothers to try to bargain, negotiate, rationalize, justify, deal, or reason with him.
The antagonist of I Saw the Devil --- and as the film progresses, increasingly the protagonist as well -- fit this mold exactly. If anything, the principals get more evil as their reactions build on their own ugly momentum, and everyone in the vicinity is noticeably worse off, or dead, by the end.
If the above sounds like a faithful portrait of revenge, I Saw the Devil might be to your liking -- which is far from saying it is pleasant to watch. It is a beautifully choreographed and visualized image of the darkest, ugliest realities one would ever want to witness in the interactions of people.