Throughout her career Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has made a theme of the propensity for violence in human nature, particularly in contrast to the ostensible checks to it in modern “liberal” society. It’s a theme she takes up once again in “Haevnen” or, as it’s been translated for American release, “In a Better World”—the first picture she’s made in her homeland since her return from a less-than-successful stay in Hollywood. The film was awarded the Oscar for best foreign-language film, and one can understand why even if one disagrees with the choice. It’s an artistically fluent treatment of a serious, indeed profound, subject.
The script divides the narrative between two continents—Europe and Africa, where doctor Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), acting as part of a humanitarian effort, treats locals, including pregnant women brutalized by a local thug known simply as the Big Man. On his trips back home he tries to maintain an amicable relationship with his wife (Trine Dyrholm), from whom he’s separating, and his adoring but young son Elias (Markus Rygaard), a meek tyke who’s bullied at school.
Elias’ unlikely defender is a campus newcomer, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen). His mother has just died after a long struggle with cancer, and his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), a frequently-absent businessman, has moved the two of them to live with Christian’s grandmother. When Christian befriends Elias and is assaulted by the bully for his trouble, he responds brutally, leading to a police inquiry in which both boys are implicated, much to their parents’ amazement.
What Bier is getting at through the parallel stories is the almost careless ease with which people resort to brute force and the difficulty in resisting the urge. On his Kenyan tour Anton faces an impossible dilemma when the Big Man comes to his compound for treatment of an infected leg. Does he follow his professional responsibility and help the man, who will undoubtedly go back to his cruel ways? Or let him die? And back in Denmark, he’s confronted by the situation resulting from Elias’ friendship with Christian.
That’s caused by the fact that the new boy, traumatized by his mother’s death (for which he blames his father), has embraced violence as a mode of addressing the problems of life. That explains his attack on the bully, and grows even more pronounced when he witnesses Anton slapped by a man in an altercation over a playground disagreement. Anton shrugs the incident off, but Christian insists on taking action against the aggressor, and draws Elias into his scheme. Naturally, things do not end well.
“In A Better World” is a rumination on the darkest impulses of which humans are capable and the strength it takes to resist them, especially when provoked to strike out when wronged. Anton is the character in whom the pull of opposite possibilities is most clearly portrayed, and Persbrandt plays him very well. But as so often happens, the most compelling figures are the children—Rygaard, who earns sympathy for Elias with a simple smile through his clumsy braces, and especially Nielsen, who subtly sketches Christian’s transformation from self-controlled and sensible to furious and obsessed. It’s a remarkable performance from such a young actor, the linchpin of the film, and one has to give credit for it not only to him but to Bier’s sensitive direction for it.
Like “Brothers,” this is an unsettling picture, not just in terms of the specific incidents but because of the questions it raises. And like Bier’s previous films, it certainly has soap-operatic elements. But it transcends them to become a thoughtful, penetrating drama.