Susanne Bier‘s In A Better World, winner of the 2010 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Feature, was the last film I saw in Park City. Within a half hour I knew I’d be putting it at the top of my Best of Sundance list. This is an emotionally vivid, sharply written drama about forgiveness and revenge, and how their coexistence can cause conflict and distress. In this sense In A Better World is like a moralistic cousin of Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven.
What’s especially strong about Bier’s film is that she shows us how the latter option can sometimes feel better and more “right” than gentleness and compassion and turning the other cheek.
The wise and compassionate wimp, if you will, is a Danish doctor named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) who spends half his time working in some kind of awful Darfurian refugee camp and the other half living in Denmark with his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and their two sons, the eldest of which, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is the victim of constant bullying at school.
In the same town a widowed businessman, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), has just moved from London with his steely-eyed son Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) who’s furious over the recent death of his mother from cancer.
The inciting incident happens when Christian defends Elias from the lead bully, a much bigger kid, by clubbing him with a bicycle air pump and threatening to stab him in the neck with a knife. It feels wonderful, trust me, when the bully gets his. But it doesn’t feel so good when Anton, back in Africa, treats a series of victims of a brutal gangster who cuts pregnant women for amusement, and then he treats the gangster himself for a leg wound. It feels satisfying, however, when the family and friends of the gangster’s victims seize this evil man and beat him to death.
Anton keeps the wimp thing going when, back in Denmark, a belligerent mechanic (Kim Bodnia) slaps him in front of Elias and Christian, and Anton, determined not to descend to the mechanic’s level, does nothing and backs off.
Christian, however, is determined to make the mechanic suffer. He comes up with a revenge scheme that is excessive and not commensuate with the original slapping offense. And the overkill tragically results in an innocent party being hurt. Struck with despair and depression, Christian is suddenly teetering on the edge of suicide. But then Anton finally mans up and…well, see the film.
By the finale Bier has shown us the upsides and downsides of gentleness and patience, and of angry brutality and push-back action. She’s clearly saying that we need to be strong and wise enough to not surrender to violent impulses, but she doesn’t make it an easy choice. Sometimes the Clint Eastwood blow-em-away approach is the right (or at least the understandable) thing to do, and sometimes not.