In a Better World sounds a bit odd for a title to a film about violence and retribution. May be they should have stuck to the original Danish title, Hævnen, which means ‘revenge.’
That being said, we admit that whatever the name, Susanne Bier nailed this one. Her powerful depiction of grief and the boundaries of family made this film scoop an Oscar for best foreign film in 2010. In quite a creative way, Susanne manages to draw out parallels between Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor who treats the victims of a monstrous thug (Odiege Matthew) in Africa, and his complicated home life in Denmark, where his young son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), copes with bullies at school.
The film begins and ends at an African clinic. Not much time is spent at this clinic but it provides a baseline for evil that informs the rest of the plot. It has been said that In a Better World suffered from obviousness, where some scenes were highly predictable. But the film’s grasp on character overcomes the more self-evident mechanics of its storytelling and lays out, with scenes of carefully gauged emotion, the twisted psychic fallout of pain and loss.
Besides Elias and those traumatised African villagers, the main victim of tragedy is Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen), a brooding, buttoned-down boy who returns to Denmark with his father (Ulrich Thomsen) after his mother’s death from breast cancer. Befriending Elias, Christian quickly becomes a mark for bullies, too. But Christian is different. Christian fights back. He prefers the clean, preventive logic of revenge: “No one will dare touch me now.”
Does it ever make sense? Should we hit back, bully the bullies, or turn the other cheek? In a Better World nudges right up to the edge of a gaping abyss, but it pulls back – barely – for a moment of reflection. Finding poetry in chaos is, perhaps, the best revenge of all.