On Sunday night I watched a review screener of In a Better World. When this absorbing but schematic melodrama ended, I made a brief visit to Facebook and found that not only was there big news in the world—the killing of Osama bin Laden, of course—but more interestingly in the context of In a Better World, there were already discussions about justice versus vengeance and how much pleasure should be taken in the demise of a bad person. For every person exulting, there seemed to be another opining solemnly that we should never take pleasure in death.
This ethical dilemma of empathy and schadenfreude is compounded by the movies—one of their basic functions is to allow us vicarious experiences, including that of redemptive violence. It's to the credit of Susanne Bier's film that, even as it sets up fairly Manichean conflicts, it discourages us from taking pleasure in easy violence. Bier first came to wide notice with Open Hearts, her 2002 drama about familial fallout after a serious auto accident. Since then, her work has continued to be self-consciously serious (Things We Lost in the Fire), internationally minded (Brothers) and freighted with humanitarian concerns (After the Wedding)—all with a considerable reliance on family melodrama. She hasn't turned out a transcendent film yet, but she may end up being the must successful disciple of the Lars von Trier-inspired Dogme 95 movement—in fact, her new film includes two actors who appeared in Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 Dogme watershed, The Celebration.
In a Better World features not one but three unrelated bad guys who must be confronted: in ascending order of evil, a schoolyard bully, a thuggish auto mechanic and a sadistic warlord in Africa. At the center of the story are two lonely boys and their emotionally and physically absent fathers. We meet young Christian, deposited into a new school in a small Danish town by his frequently absent father (Ulrich Thomsen) after the death of his mother. There he attracts the attention of the class bully and his gang, who are otherwise preoccupied with terrorizing a boy named Elias. The unhappy Elias lives with his mother (played by the fine Danish actress Trine Dyrholm), who is separated from his father (the Swedish star Mikael Persbrandt), a relief physician who spends most of his time working in an African medical clinic. (The film doesn't say which African country—it's just a place where happy barefoot children run behind the vehicles of relief workers who throw them soccer balls.)
Elias is a nice normal kid, but the new guy in town is slightly built, unsettlingly intense, merciless and perhaps a bit of a psychopath (Markus Rygaard's Elias is note-perfect, but Bier's direction of the actor playing Christian, the dead-eyed William Jøhnk Nielsen, comes dangerously close to giggle-inducing echoes of The Omen). When Christian finds a solution to the bully problem, a short, explosive scene satisfies our desire for revenge. But as the problems become more complex, violent retribution doesn't work as well.
One of the unpleasant features of another recent Scandinavian film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was its nihilistic use of violence: When the heroine is violated, it's bad, and when she dishes it out, it's good. But the escalating—if mostly unsurprising—confrontations of In a Better World grow in interest and moral complexity. In Africa, for example, Elias' father Anton has to reconcile his medical ethics and humanitarianism with the evil, perhaps criminally insane warlord who terrorizes the region. But the film's most compelling confrontation is a more prosaic one. When Anton is on a visit home to see his sons and estranged wife, a common thug humiliates him in front of Elias and Christian. While the badass little Christian seethes about the need to carry out rough justice that will teach this man a lesson, Anton agonizes over the best way to resolve the situation—for the sake of his own dignity and principles, and as a teaching moment for the boys. The resulting scene is the most edifying in the film.