"I want to be burned when I die, don't you?" Cremation isn't something you'd expect a typical 10-year-old boy to be talking about. Then again, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) isn't a typical 10-year-old boy. After losing his mother to cancer, he's sent to live with his grandmother in Denmark. His father (Ulrich Thomsen) is too busy to raise a son alone, with all his trips to London for work. But Christian doesn't mind, he just wants to be left alone. Besides, he's still angry at his dad for "giving up" on his mom. Not having to see each other every day sounds perfect.
On his first day of school, Christian meets Elias (Markus Rygaard). Like Christian, Elias has family troubles. His father (Mikael Persbrandt) is normally off saving lives in an African refugee camp as a way to avoid dealing with a failing marriage. That leaves his mother (Trine Dyrholm) doing her best to raise two sons. But, unlike Christian, Elias would really like to have his dad around. Maybe then he wouldn't be such an easy target for bullies. At the very least, he'd have someone to give him advice as to how to respond. Instead, he's left with his mum. Despite her attempts to comfort him, all she does is make him want to lash out.
An outlet for suppressed rage
That's why Elias is excited at the thought of finally having a friend. Christian is bullied for being Swedish, so they can be outsiders together! But these boys aren't the same. While Elias quietly accepts being punched around, Christian decides to find an outlet for his suppressed rage. He fights back. Hard. His father is stunned and tries to explain that what he did will simply lead to an endless cycle of tit-for-tat. "Not if you hit hard enough the first time," Christian says. "Now nobody will mess with me."
Elias's dad, now back from Africa, also tries to explain that violence isn't the answer. He believes that if someone hits you on one cheek, you should turn the other. Then turn it again so they can hit you some more. Elias knows his dad is right, but Christian, on a self-inflicted mission to bring justice to the world, still isn't buying it. When the boys find some old fireworks in a barn, Christian decides to take things one step further. They empty out the gunpowder, download some instructions from the Internet, and ... well, I'm sure you can guess where this is going.
Not the right choice for an Oscar
In A Better World won this year's Oscar for best foreign film. I don't think that it was the right choice. Yes, Susanne Bier (Things We Lost in the Fire) made a great movie. Yes, the acting (especially by the boy who played Christian) was outstanding. I just didn't find it as touching as Biutiful or as shocking as Incendies. Even the recently released Outside The Law, an engaging epic about the Algerian struggle for independence from France after World War II, had more depth than this.
I guess that's the problem with In A Better World. It's more for your head than for your heart. Sometimes it's as if the movie doesn't want to get too uncomfortable by making you feel the evident pain. Perhaps that's not surprising given the vague title. (The Danish Hævnen should actually translate as "Vengeance".)
Raising a question
Ultimately, the movie raises a big question: How should we respond to violence and injustice? On the one hand, we could fight, but doesn't that just make us as bad as the people who started it? This is a question for Christian. It's quite fascinating to see how he starts out as Elias' liberator, only to end up becoming a bully like the boys he saved Elias from. Just because he doesn't do it physically, doesn't mean he isn't as bad. (There's a whole political angle right there, but that's another topic for another time.)
On the other hand, we could walk away, but doesn't that just make us cowards who are more likely to be attacked again and again? This is a question for Elias' dad. He's forced to think about it when a local thug known only as Big Man comes to his African clinic for medical help. Should he treat this monster, who likes to slice up pregnant women after placing bets on the sex of their unborn children? (It gets pretty graphic.) That would definitely teach his children about compassion, but it would also lead to a lot more pain for the village as a whole.
An unnecessarily gory distraction
These are tough questions. Sadly, the movie doesn't answer them. Instead, it spends what feels like forever dealing with the African sub-plot, an unnecessarily gory distraction that could quite easily have been a film on its own. In the end, it just wraps everything up a little too nicely. I suppose that's the movie's way of leaving you to figure out the answers for yourself. In a better world, we wouldn't have to. That's because in a better world, we wouldn't have to ask these questions at all.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes Age restriction: 16 (LV) Language: In English, Danish, and Swedish with English subtitles.
Eugene graduated from the University of Cape Town with distinctions in financial accounting and classical piano. He then spent over two-and-half years working in branding and communications at two of South Africa's top market research companies. Eugene also spent over three-and-a-half years at an eLearning start-up, all while building his business as an award-winning writer.
Visit www.eugeneyiga.com, follow @eugeneyiga on Twitter, or email moc.agiyenegue@olleh to say, um, hello.