Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” the English-language title for the Danish film “Haevnen,” which won the Oscar for best foreign language film at the 2010 Academy Awards, attempts to give a more adult answer to the dilemma Hollywood has spent 100 years exploiting: What do ordinary, law-abiding citizens do when confronted with bullies and psychopaths? How does a man face brutality without becoming brutal himself?
These films are now called vigilante films, since, in them, ordinary citizens go beyond the law to set things right (see everything from “Death Wish” to “Harry Brown”), but they were once simply called westerns. The hero that emerged, often John Wayne, didn’t have to worry about going beyond the law because there was barely a law. He also shot second. (He was eminently fair.) There was also no blood, no rape, no none of that. Hays Code.
In “Haevnen,” Elias (Markus Rygaard), buck-toothed and braces-wearing, is the picked-upon kid at his local school, whose hallways are ruled by Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm) and his crew of toadies. They block entranceways, demand obeisance, and hurt and humiliate those they don’t like. Elias, sweet-natured, is a favorite target.
Then Christian (William Jřhnk Nielsen), Danish, but recent of London where his mother died of cancer, arrives on the scene. He’s no bigger than Elias, and both are smaller than Sofus, but he moves through life with an intense glare. The first day he scopes out the scene like a little Clint Eastwood, stands up to Sofus (for which he gets a soccer ball in the nose), and the next day, when Sofus follows Elias into the boys’ room to further pick on him, Christian follows and attacks Sofus with a bike pump and a knife, leaving him bloody and moaning on the floor. It’s like John Foster Dulles’ 1950s foreign policy of massive retaliation except in a Danish middle school.
School officials, absent or impotent for the reign of Sofus’ terror, now, of course, get involved. The knife is particularly troublesome—it’s apparently the Danish equivalent of bringing a gun to school—and parents are called and admonished; but both boys stand firm, the knife is never found, and Sofus’ reign ends. Half an hour into the film.
That itself is intriguing. In the typical vigilante film, you get your moment of revenge in the third act, not the first, and it pretty much ends the movie. Now we’re left wondering what’s going to happen next. (At the same time, it doesn’t mean we didn’t thrill to the beating of Sofus, the little shit, any less than we thrill to the revenge perpetrated against any number of cinematic bullies. First or third act, the desire for justice of a violent nature is still there.)
I suppose that’s the question of “Haevnen”: Can we have a justice that’s not violent? That’s within the law? That’s adult?
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), the father of Elias, attempts to find out. Well, he doesn’t attempt to find out. It’s less proactive than that. He just finds out. Kind of.
Anton spends half his time as a doctor-without-borders in sub-Saharan Africa, treating the sick and the injured. The latter group, increasingly, is filled with pregnant women whose stomachs have been slit open. Why? Who could do such a thing? Turns out, the local chieftain, Big Man (Odiege Matthew), who bets compatriots on the gender of the unborn babies of passing pregnant women. Cutting them open is a way to settle the bet.
It’s in Denmark, though, that Anton finds his bully. One day, chaperoning his two boys and Christian near the docks, Morten (Toke Lars Bjarke), Elias’ younger brother, pulls away and gets into a fight with another boy over a swing. When Anton tries to break it up, the father of the second boy shows up, belligerently objects to Anton touching his son, and slaps Anton in the face several times. It’s a shocking moment—for both us and the kids. It’s also shocking for Anton, who keeps his cool but cools off his injured cheek (and injured spirit?) with a swim in the family lake at dusk.
In a better world, Anton would forget about the incident. Unfortunately, now his son thinks him a coward. So after the boys have tracked the bully, Lars (Kim Bodnia), to his workplace, Anton shows up, with boys in tow, and confronts him. Except Lars feels no shame, just maliciousness, and again slaps Anton repeatedly. It’s an interesting scene. Anton is confrontational but peaceful, and shows no fear, and questions every move Lars makes. Afterwards, outside, he claims that Lars showed himself to be a big jerk not worth anyone’s time or attention. He says Lars lost. But Christian annunciates our thoughts: “I don’t think he thinks he lost.”
This sets up the second half of the movie: Anton, in Africa, dealing with an injured Big Man, and Elias and Christian, in Denmark, scheming against Lars. In his grandfather’s garage, Christian finds old fireworks and uses their gunpowder to create a bomb with which to blow up Lars’ car.
In the end, retribution against Lars is premeditated and comes with complications (Elias is caught in the blast), while retribution against Big Man is impulsive and ... without complications? Anton treats Big Man for an infected leg for several days, but when Big Man makes a joke about a girl who dies on Anton’s operating table, Anton loses it and shoves him and his entourage—two unarmed men—into the courtyard. The two men flee, while Big Man is left helpless on the ground. The citizens gradually close in on him and tear him apart.
If there are complications for Anton’s actions, they are internal, within Anton, never external. At no point, for example, do any of Big Man’s men take revenge. Because they wanted Big Man gone, too? Who knows? It’s all left hanging. Does Anton feel less culpable about Big Man’s death because it wasn’t by his own hands? Does he feel disappointed in the citizens who tear him apart? Does he revel in the revenge, as most of us, from the safety of our theater seats, do?
Every answer “Haevnen” offers is dissatisfying. Most, one imagines, are purposefully so, but the movie is dissatisfying in other, seemingly unintentional ways. How, for example, does Christian become a 10-year-old Clint Eastwood in the first place? Solely through the death of his mother? He apparently learns his lesson—or a lesson—about his violent ways by almost causing the death of Elias. But how long does the lesson hold? And does Anton feel any culpability here? If he’d simply stood up to Lars, or called the cops on him, the boys wouldn’t have felt the need to take action themselves. What’s the better world of the title: one in which Anton stands up to Lars or one in which Lars doesn’t exist?
The cinematography is gorgeous and the acting excellent—particularly William Jřhnk Nielsen’s astonishing turn as Christian, for which he was nominated best actor at the Danish Academy Awards. But “Haevnen” still feels weak for a best foreign language film winner. We watch for two hours and no insight, great or small, comes.
November 6, 2011
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard