- “Jerks like you get a kick out of thinking you have power over others. But you don’t… I came to show these boys you have no power over me, you can’t hurt me.”
- “OK, so you’re not afraid of me. And I can’t hurt you? But I can. I can hurt you.”
It came as quite a surprise on the evening of the Golden Globes ceremony when Danish director Susanne Bier took to the stage to collect the Best Picture in a Foreign Language award for her eleventh feature In A Better World, beating Alejandro Gonzalez-Iñarritu’s hot favourite Biutiful to the prize. It was a trick repeated the following month at the Academy Awards, and whilst it’s probably fair to say the deserved winner (by which I mean Giorgos Lanthimos’ excellent Dogtooth) stood little chance, it was perhaps a more predictable victory than initially assumed when compared to some of the more left-field choices of recipient in recent years (Departures, The Secret In Their Eyes). It’s the kind of film the Academy loves, a story about childhood written and directed with its moral phaser set to ‘teach’, a film which purports to discuss the nature of violence, forgiveness and reciprocal justice by offering us an idiot’s guide to both perspectives of an ethical argument (both through reductive dialogue and narrative contrivances) whilst simultaneously working overtime to ensure we understand what we’re supposed to be thinking at any given moment. It’s not dissimilar in that respect to a previous Best Picture winner, Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005), another film unwilling to trust its facile reductions of complex social issues to its viewer without spoon-feeding them every beat.
- “You can’t just go around beating people up. That doesn’t help anything. What kind of world would we get? He’s a jerk. If I hit him, I’m a jerk too. And if I go to jail, you’ll be left without a dad, and he’ll have won.”
We meet twelve year old Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) reading from Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale at his mother’s funeral. After her death from cancer in London, his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) brings him back to Denmark to continue school. On his first day, Christian meets classmate Elias (Markus Rygaard), first seen being pushed about by the school bully, Sofus. When Sofus turns on Christian too and corners Elias in the toilets, Christian takes matters into his own hands by dishing out a nasty beating of his own with a bicycle pump and a knife. Claus is called to the school alongside Elias’ recently separated parents Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and Anton (Mikael Persbrandt, who we meet at the very start of the picture working as a doctor in a makeshift treatment centre in an unnamed African country) which begins the first of the film’s discussions on reciprocal violence.
- “If you hit him, he hits you, and then you hit him, and then it never ends. Don’t you see? That’s how wars are started.”
- “Not if you hit hard enough the first time. You don’t know shit.”
Christian is unimpressed with the counter-arguments put to him, feeling justified in meting out his own sense of personal vengeance, thus setting up the film’s continued tussle between the validity of the adages ‘an eye for an eye’ versus ‘turn the other cheek’ and their respective consequences. Bier refrains from bringing religion into the mix explicitly, but its moral posturing queasily allies itself with the tenets of New Testament Christianity, even down to the naming of the lead child character (but then it may have been pushing it a little far to name him Gandhi). Initially, Christian’s own ethical and moral identity is defined by a keen obligation towards what he considers justice, that of reciprocity rather than vengeance, but stemming from what he believes to be a sign of weakness in others, particularly his father, who he blames for giving up on his mother in the final days of her disease. He defines people by their willingness to carry through with their actions, taking their inaction into his own hands if he feels proper justice has not been served.
- “She didn’t want to die, and you gave up. I can’t be bothered with people who give up.”
Both human nature and nature itself are key concerns here, the first often clumsily handled. When the story attempts to draw parallels with Anton’s wok as a doctor in Africa, Bier’s film shows its weakest hand, painting its arguments with the broadest strokes. The medical facility in which Anton is working, mostly on victims of war atrocities, sees a steady stream of young pregnant women brought in with their stomachs cut open. A local tyrant known as Big Man has been placing bets on the sex of the unborn children, cutting open the mothers to find out. When Big Man is brought to the camp for treatment on a badly infected wound, Anton must decide whether to uphold his Hippocratic Oath and save his life, or throw him to the mob. This latter section is framed very much as an ethical battle between good and evil, undermining what few complexities came before, but more uncomfortably (here at least) also as a struggle for power, where Anton has to decide whether he has any right to play God, a very white, blue-eyed one at that.
Bier intercuts her handheld, indecisive framing throughout with shots of nature and landscapes, holding them within the frame in a stasis suggestive of indifference to the unpredictable nature of man. Rotting animal carcasses reflect the inherent violence of nature, a world where only the fittest survive, and these sparse moments offer more ambiguity in their gaze than the forceful dialogues throughout, the closing credits suggesting the natural world will carry on irrespective of the actions of the protagonists.
But it’s these actions with which the film sets up its morality tale, it tells us that this world may be unjust, but it’s how we deal with this injustice that defines us. Questions of masculinity, power and retribution are asked and forgiveness is posited as the key to understanding but there’s little concern with the roots of these concerns. Is violence inherited or cyclical? Can we define ourselves through pacifism when the rest of world chooses combat? Are we products of our environment, our education, our parents? Bier refrains from tackling these questions, choosing to define everything in only the most black and white terms. The colours within her frame are graded to pop, and it seems this director has little time for grey areas.
The performances are however strong throughout, particularly the children, but the film suffers considerably as a result of its screenplay. Kim Bodnia (Pusher, Bleeder) is strong in a small role, but his scenes are contrived, like much of the narrative in the latter half of the film, unaided by an insistently foreboding score. Bier has made a couple of successful films in the past, but In A Better World is amongst her weakest, one that offers few concessions to audience intelligence, setting up contrasting and conflicting arguments in the broadest terms and then proceeding to flog them to death, finally serving up its own sense of morality rather than allowing the viewer to decide anything for themselves.
In A Better World (Hӕvnen) – 2010 – Denmark – 119 mins – Dir : Susanne Bier