Despite the dearth of worthwhile movies at the beginning of the year, the local theaters weren’t using the space to let in the foreign films, and it had been a while since anything non-English had come through until the year’s Oscar winner showed up in the form of the Danish flick In A Better World (Hævnen).
Of course, in recent years a lot of foreign films have followed the Hollywood potboiler format (and quite successfully) but In A Better World is Scandinavian to the core. Well, neo-Scandinavian—it’s hard to imagine the Vikings of yore signing on to this sort of thing.
The story is about two pre-pubescent boys, Christian and Elias, their fathers and, well, conflict resolution. Elias is a nerdy little kid who gets bullied in school until Christian comes along. Elias’ father is a doctor who splits his time between an African refugee camp and his quaint little Danish town, and also has apparently at some point split his attention between his wife and another woman, such that his wife has separated from him.
Christian’s mother has just died, and his father has relocated him from London to wherever the hell they are in Denmark, either because his grandmother is around or perhaps because he has a lover there (Christian accuses him of moving for the latter reason).
Christian sees Elias being bullied and he doesn’t like it. We learn right away that he has a strong sense of justice. We then quickly learn he has an even stronger sense of revenge and a lot of pent up rage. Elias finds himself navigating a tricky friendship that tests his own sense of right and wrong. This is the movie’s strength.
The boys’ struggle is thrown into contrast by Anton’s (Elias’ dad) African adventures. Anton is struggling to teach the boys that violence is not the answer, but life isn’t making this lesson easy to transmit. Home in Denmark, he faces a bully of his own, and demonstrates tremendous courage in front of the boys facing him down. Meanwhile, in Africa, he’s constantly patching up victims of a warlord whose betting on the sex of unborn children, and then splitting their mothers open in order to resolve the bet.
The movie feels a little unfocused when it spends time on Anton and Claus (Christian’s dad) without the boys; it’s a little like the message was more important than the story.
That said, the message is not a simple one. We see violence as cathartic, helpful, pointless, savage, chaotic—but the director and writer don’t take the easy way out. Ultimately, it’s this nuance that makes the whole thing work.
Solid performances from all the actors, whose names you do not know. Good writing, direction, cinematography. All around solid production, and done on the cheap (by American standards) which is a good reminder that you can actually make a good movie without a lot of CGI.
I also learned from this movie that Danes hate Swedes, which is just adorable.
The Boy approved highly.