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In a Better World

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In a Better World

Directed by Susanne Bier

Opens May 13 at the Charles Theater

What’s the last thing that made you feel rage? Not just rage, but powerful injustice, that a wrong has been committed and you would be willing to do something rash in order to get the grand scales back into balance. Most likely it was a first-world problem of some sort: your bank doing that thing with overdraft fees that maximizes your fucking over, your mechanic missing the real problem again, a traffic ticket for just five over. And perhaps you’ve confronted one of these ultimately trifling problems with a spoonful of perspective: Overdraft fees will not spread AIDS through your community like a bad rumor. Open a newspaper, take a deep breath, and maximize your rage.

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) has seen something to give him rage. A Swedish doctor based in Denmark and working presumably for some kind of humanitarian organization in remote Sudan, he is seeing something awful become commonplace. A powerful local warlord known by villagers just as “Big Man” is cutting the unborn children from women, killing them, and leaving the mothers to die in the desert. Anton can save some, while others don’t make it. Fear rules here, not justice, and it’s unclear just how much the everyday horror of his job affects him at home in Denmark, living quite comfortably in a gorgeous summer home overlooking the sea.

Anton is in the position to stare deeply at this gaping comfort-versus-survival rift between the first world and the rest of it. Back in Sweden, another sort of injustice is running in parallel. A streak of xenophobia runs through Anton’s Danish village, and his son Elias is picked on relentlessly. In the course of breaking up a fight between his son and another boy, the other boy’s father slaps Anton’s face. He regards it coolly, taking it for what it is: a brief physical sting and a passing ugliness. Life will go on, and for letting the incident roll without retaliation Anton is the better man.

His son’s moderately creepy, sullen friend Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen)—who recently moved to Denmark from London, following the lingering and brutal death of his mother to cancer—is less certain and hatches a plan for retaliation. The boys will plant a pipe bomb (thanks, internet) and blow the man’s work van up. The plan for revenge goes very awry, and Elias is severely wounded. Thinking that he’s killed him, Christian goes late at night to the top of a waterfront silo with the intention of jumping to his death.

In a Better World’s European title is Revenge, which is very important. In such simple, broad tones the movie cuts into what revenge is after pruning away all of the logic and even emotion. Revenge flicks usually get at the nature of revenge from some angle or another, but you’d be pressed to find something more honest and strangely surgical about it than Better.

The boy doesn’t jump and, afterward, Anton doesn’t look at Christian so much with bafflement, wondering how this equation works, how a simple slap begets this. Instead, Anton regards him with a kind of reluctant understanding. There is something about justice that belies equivalency altogether. Back in Africa, the villagers (partially with Anton’s help) eventually get a hold of Big Man, and there’s a scene of him being dragged away in a mob of people to a grim death. There’s something almost matter-of-fact or even natural about it, like he could have just as well been carried away by the wind or an ocean tide. Justice has been met because there is no other way in the larger order that it could be.

Not that a catastrophic explosion is fitting retaliation for a first-world problem—Better is about the impulse, that little switch that goes off when injustice occurs. (Besides, there’s never any perfect equivalency in justice, is there?) What that impulse is, what it feels like in its most raw and honest state, is the secret that strangely brings Christian and Anton together. That spark, ultimately, is something you can’t ignore—and just maybe we would be better off if we could.

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