We were originally going to watch this for Film Club, and after I watched it, I sort of wished that we had still Film Club. Then I remembered I'd probably be discussing it alone anyway! But...maybe some of you have seen this since it did win an Oscar for foreign language film.
I've seen a handful of Susanne Bier's movies now and something that sort of strikes me about them is that despite the almost overly dramatic premises of the films, they are infused with such such real human feelings that it's forgivable. A credit, I think, to both the actors and the scripts. This is, I guess, a matter of personal preference? Like I feel there is so much weight and reality to the characters that I can feel brimming beneath the surface, the films really capture small moments of human interaction and expression in a way that make them feel so real. I don't find it to be cheap sentimental emotion at all.
This is true for In a Better World, as well, a film that on its surface is about bullying, but at its heart is about the violence we all have inside of us and control. Who has it, who wants it, how to use it when its yours, what kind of control/power each individual is most interested in.
Christian's story opens in London where he is reading a poem in memoriam for his mother. We will learn she passed away from cancer and this has torn a hole open inside Christian's heart. Christian's father brings him to Denmark to live with his grandmother. When they first arrive she tells him he can pick any room he wants. Christian chooses a small cluttered unadorned room. His father is surprised and says, "well you don't have to make up your mind now."
"Is it my choice or not?" Christian shoots back. This is our first hint into Christian's mind and the battle for control he is facing. His mother has died leaving him in such a state of utter powerlessness that he is grasping for areas of his life he can control.
When Christian starts school, he notices a boy, Elias, is being bullied. He is seated next to Elias in class and they make quick friends. After school, Elias finds the air has been let out of his tires again. Christian suggests he steal the valves from another bike and let a different boy drag his bike home. As they set about doing this, the bullies show up and Christian tries to stand up for Elias but is hit with a ball/effectively punching him in the nose.
Christian takes action the next day. When he sees Sofas, the main bully, go after Elias again, he follows him and beats him with a bicycle pump and threatens him with a knife. Elias and Christian hide the knife and lie to the authorities about its existence. This deepens their friendship.
When Christian's father questions him about it, Christian explains he had to hit hard first. "Now no one will touch me. You don't know shit, it's like this at every school." And the thing is...while his father argues the fighting will just continue, Christian isn't wrong. Sofus makes friendly overtures to him after that. But even more interestingly is how Christian sees this as something within his control. He loathes the idea of being left vulnerable, he is already so vulnerable to natural life occurrences outside of his control, like his mother dying. As the movie progresses, we come to understand that Christian sees her succumbing to death as a sign of her weakness. He blames his father for hoping she'd die. "I don't have time for people who give up."
But Christian's story isn't the only one. Elias's father is in Africa working as a doctor when he's not home. There's a lot of violence going on in the region, specifically attacks against women. He battles to save their lives.
Christian and Elias become closer and one day when out with Elias's dad, Elias's younger brother gets hit on the playground. Elias's dad rushes over to stop him which in turn leads to the other boy's father coming over and hitting him. (and it's Martin from Broen sob, he's a total jerk in this. Okay I guess he's kind of a jerk in Broen, too, but...) Anyway, this is a huge event. Christian questions why Elias's dad didn't do anything. "I was the strong one," he responds
But the event clearly rattles him, as the film shows him swimming off his aggression later. He even brings the boys over to the workplace of the bully for another encounter in which Lars, the adult bully, slaps him again. Anton (Elias's dad) tells the boy he won this encounter. Christian replies, "I don't think he thinks so."
Okay I didn't mean for this to be a straight up recap of the film, but it's hard to express this constant exploration of violence and aggression and self-control without doing so. I'll try to keep the rest short!
One of the things I really admired is that EVERY character succumbs to their inner violence at some point in the film. Even Elias's mother chokes and shakes Christian after he endangers Elias's life, nailing what she's really railing against. The use of violence and force to control. Anton first agrees to treat a criminal in Africa, but when he makes lewd remarks about a young female victim, Anton lets the crowds beat him to a violent death. But notably, it's this very event that creates within Anton a greater capacity for empathy to understand why Christian builds a bomb to destroy Lars's van. It's the sense of being so powerless over grief, over loss, over everything in life really.
I was really disappointed to read the reviews largely call this movie too sentimental or offering too pat of an answer when I couldn't disagree more. While I do feel the story comes to a conclusion in the film, the questions remain. I think it offers an understandable viewpoint on what drives us to be violent and cruel, and I think it also offers the only real answer to addressing it which is empathy. Of course that doesn't mean it will work every time, but each person must come to a decision on their own about whether self-control or trying to control others is the way they want to go. We are all powerless against loss, death, circumstance in life. We can't change certain things that happen to us or the way people feel about us, all we can do is control our own behavior.
It may sound odd, but I think watching this movie and writing about it just now helped me realize this about myself with some of the anger I've been dealing with lately. (which for me is odd because I rarely get angry and yet lately I've been getting angry so much--also to each their own, but I don't LIKE to feel angry and it makes me feel just as powerless as sadness so I'd really rather figure out ways to work through it rather then embrace it) No one is bullying me or anything, but I guess I do feel like there are these things outside of my control and I'm having a hard time with it.
Anyway, great film, in my opinion! Also, it's really pretty, gorgeous shots of Denmark. And there is other stuff I didn't touch on. Just..I don't know, worth your time! If I felt like we could find them easily, I'd suggest a Susanne Bier's film club theme, but alas, I think a lot of these movies would be hard to find. (not this one, though)