In her native Denmark, acclaimed director Susanne Bier released her latest drama, In a Better World, under the title Hævnen, which translates as The Revenge. Despite the wimpy new name, In a Better World won this year's Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. But The Revenge seems like a far more commercially viable title. At movie theaters, vengeance is a beloved tradition almost as popular as concession-stand popcorn.
Most films that address revenge include tepid disclaimers that violent retribution may be a bad idea, and then proceed to get off on orgiastic bloodshed. South Korea's I Saw the Devil provides a recent example. Bier proves to be the rare director who genuinely believes vengeance is a dish best served cold to audiences. In a Better World, however downbeat and full of itself, wrestles with the moral challenges that accompany revenge without pumping up viewers' bloodlust.
The film centers on the wary friendship of two 12-year-old boys in a small Danish town. Elias (Markus Rygaard) suffers bullying from his classmates who call him "Rat Face" for his crooked teeth, and persecute him for daring to be Swedish in a bigoted corner of Denmark. Elias finds a defender in transfer student Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), who moved to Denmark from London following his mother's death. Christian wins Elias' loyalty by taking on the school bully, but in doing so crosses the line from self-defense to sadism.
Broken homes exacerbate both boys' problems. Christian's mother recently died of cancer, and his grief turns to resentment of his frequently absent father (Ulrich Thomsen). He also nurses a deepening fascination with the use of force, his preoccupation with the video game Call of Duty only hinting at his obsessions. Nielsen gives such an icily controlled performance for such an innocent-looking boy that we're unsure of Christian from the beginning. Is he mixed-up, in mourning or actually sociopathic? And when Christian contemplates a literally explosive plot against a local brute, Elias worries that blowing the whistle will cost him his only ally.
Elias' parents have separated and his father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), is often working abroad at a Sudanese refugee camp for a Doctors Without Borders-type organization. While in Denmark, Anton tries to teach both boys that fighting doesn't pay. At one point, Anton confronts a brawling, prejudiced auto mechanic with nonviolent pacifism worthy of Gandhi, and doesn't flinch when the bigot slaps him across the face. Christian suspects that an eye for an eye will get better results than turning the other cheek.
Persbrandt's weary silences help convey Anton's emotional complexities, like the way he makes enormous sacrifices for Sudanese strangers while allowing his family ties to weaken. At the refugee camp, Anton crosses paths with a small-time but monstrous warlord called "The Big Man" who puts Anton's pacifistic ideals and Hippocratic oath to the test. What should civilized people do in the face of inhuman savagery, especially in the absence of civil authority?
In a Better World tends to treat cute African kids as props, and their parents as victims who need protection from white, paternalistic Europeans. An eleventh-hour point feels like a too-easy evasion of the film's most difficult ideas. You can appreciate Bier's wish to end In a Better World on a note of reconciliation, but having raised a difficult question over whether violence is necessary, the film fudges its final answer.