Music Feature

DVD Review: In a Better World

by Piers Marchant
Suzanne Bier's latest leaves a mark.

Dir. Susanne Bier
Score: 6.3

According to the trusty google translator, "Hævnen," the original title of Susanne Bier's Danish film translates more or less directly to "vengeance." I suspect I know why the producers opted for the more elliptical title they chose for the American audience, though I'm not at all sure I agree with the thinking behind it. Bier's film is indeed about the ways in which we attempt to avenge the things that have sorely wounded us, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Their translation suggests a far more facile process than the one Bier has actually created, for at its root, vengeance is the single hardest human impulse to contain.

Our story involves two separate families, linked by a friendship between two adolescent boys. Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), a serious-faced boy whose mother has just passed away from a long bout with cancer, meets Elias (Markus Rygaard), a eager-seeming kid, endlessly picked on by the local bullies for being Swedish, upon his arrival at his new school in Denmark. They become friends after Christian beats the living hell out of the lead bully in defense of Elias', which engages Christian to keep pushing the limits of just what he's capable. Meanwhile, Elias parents, separated since Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a medic in a Doctors Without Borders-type outfit, cheated on Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), a hospital doctor, are suffering on their own; while Christian's suddenly widowered father (Ulrich Thomsen) struggles to make sense of his son's new found inner rage, even as he mourns the death of his wife. Further throwing elements into the mix, Anton spends half his time in a small village in Africa, working at a free clinic whose patients are routinely terrorized by an evil warlord known only as "Big Man" (Odiege Matthew), who finds the occasion to visit the clinic himself for medical treatment.

The film gracefully swirls around its complicated formula of characters, situations and geographies. It's hard to say any single plot thrust is unexpected -- in fact, in many cases, you can call the shot long before it happens -- but the delicacy and specificity with which it treats its many characters doesn't let you off the hook narratively simply by being predictable. Oddly enough, however, the same does not hold entirely true for the protagonists themselves. A surprisingly great number of these conflicts and dramas are almost entirely settled by the end of the film, easing up on the audience when it probably could've driven harder to embellish its strong themes. You can't hold it against the film that it ends more or less happily, but you can at least partially lament all the stuff it left behind in order to get there.

The BD version also comes with deleted scenes, commentaries from director Bier and editor Pernille Bech Christensen, and a separate interview with Bier.

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