Friday, March 18, 2011

In a Better World (Haevnen) Movie Review

This film will open commercially in the United States on 1 April 2011. 

Bullies exist in all places, among all groups of people and among all ages. The way you deal with them can help define your character. I’m not sure why, but the way many people encourage children to confront bullies is different to how we expect adults to do so. I think many would agree that children should stand up for themselves, while the advice we’d likely give an adult would be to ignore and walk away. What does this difference point to? I suppose it’s that a young bully, still in his formative year, has lesson to learn and can change their ways, whereas a grown man is probably unlikely to take anything from the experience. More than likely you might take a beating.

Early in Susanne Bier’s In a Better World (known in Danish as Haevnen, which means ‘revenge’) a young boy named Christian exacts a brutal punishment on a school bully. Christian has recently returned from England to Denmark with his father (Ulrich Thomsen) after the death of his mother. He’s the new kid in school and on the first day he witnesses another boy, a Swede named Elias, on the receiving end of several nasty taunts and jibes from Sofus and his cronies. By the end of the school day, Christian will have taken a basketball to the face courtesy of Sofus. The next day he gets the drop on Sofus, who has Elias cornered alone in a bathroom. Christian goes to work on him with a bicycle pump and then threatens him with a knife to the throat.

It’s hard not to feel a great deal of satisfaction at Sofus getting the beating he so richly deserves. Okay, Christian gives him quite a severe beating and the knife feels much more like the result of an obviously troubled young mind than a simple act of defense or revenge. But I firmly believe that a bully like Sofus needs to be physically taken down by one of his victims in order to demonstrate to everyone, including himself, that he’s not untouchable.

These are important life lessons. Without that beating Sofus might turn out to be like the auto mechanic who bullies Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), Elias’s father, in a misunderstanding on a playground. Anton is made out to look weak and ridiculous in front of his two sons and Christian. When he later confronts the man at his place of business (bringing the children along to teach a lesson) we cringe because confronting a bully in the adult world potentially has much deeper consequences than a schoolyard fight.

Anton stands his ground, taking several slaps to the face before leaving to explain the lesson to the kids: the bully has lost because the slaps didn’t hurt and in the end he’s been defeated by someone taking the higher ground and winning with words. Christian’s response sums up the movie’s theme: “He doesn’t know he’s lost. He thinks he’s won.” In Christian’s eyes, because of the way Sofus changed his tune after his pummeling, force is the only way to resolve these conflicts. So he and Elias hatch a revenge plan that could have dire consequences for the two boys and for any possible bystanders.

One of Anders Thomas Jensen’s screenplay’s biggest missteps is in trying to explain Christian’s troubles with pop psychology. We know implicitly that he must be having difficulty after the loss of his mother and a move to another country and a new school. His relationship with his father is depicted as strained at best. His father tries in vain to talk to him about his mother’s death, but Christian ignores him. By the end of the film, Christian will have an emotional meltdown leading to the brink of suicide that feels designed by the screenwriter as a way of explaining his behavior aggressive behavior.

I think if the film had stuck to a simpler story of Christian’s and Elias’s friendship and their antics with respect to both Sofus and the garage mechanic it might have worked much better. But Jensen tries to connect it to a larger, more global, theme. Anton is a surgeon who works for some kind of NGO in Africa (probably Sudan) providing medical care to the poor people there. Occasionally a young girl is brought in as a patient, bleeding from a large wound in the abdomen. He’s told by his assistant that a local militant known as Big Man likes to make bets as to the sex of unborn children in the village. He then cuts open the girls to check if he was correct.

I know there’s a lot of brutality in Sudan and other African countries. I’m aware that there are what essentially amount to glorified thugs backed up by well-armed militants who do terrible things. But this kind of disgusting act seems completely fabricated for the purpose of winning over the sympathy of the audience 100 percent without reservation. Bier wants us to react with complete hatred for the man who would do that so that when he later turns up at the makeshift hospital with a leg so severely infected he can’t even walk, we question Anton’s moral values when he decides to treat him. Understandably, none of the nurses or assistants will help Anton perform the surgery. The fact that he insists on treating Big Man serves as an affirmation of his own upstanding values – a doctor has the obligation of the oath he’s taken to treat any patient put in front of him.

Big Man is of course just another bully in the movie. Or at least that’s how Bier wants us to see him – as part of a continuum of bullies – with Sofus at one extreme and Big Man at the other. Anton sets ground rules for Big Man’s stay in the hospital: he can only have two bodyguards at any given time and none of them are allowed to have weapons. That Big Man agrees to this out of desperation seems plausible, but wouldn’t a man as brutal as him start putting bullets into innocent hospital staff to get Anton to meet his demands? I don’t know.

At any rate it sets up the final conflict between Anton and Big Man in which Anton gets the chance to assert himself against this thug in the same way Christian handled Sofus. The problem with this view is that it’s a rather simplistic view of local gang politics. Bier makes the same mistake Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis made in Gran Torino when they wrote a resolution to a gang problem that has four members sent off to jail as if they wouldn’t be immediately supplanted by other gang members who would simply continue the same problems. Anton’s handling of Big Man would be likely to open a whole new can of worms and the violence would only escalate. That might have made for an interesting coda, suggesting that grown up bullies in the real world cannot be shut down as easily as the boy at school. From this year's winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film I expected more.

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