“Not if you hit hard enough the first time”
Heaven. Hell. Life. Death. We live within an existence that holds those four words as gospel. We strive to be good in hope for salvation while the threat of eternal damnation lingers just close enough to fear. Wars—whether big or small, on an international scale or a familial one—make us choose sides. We pick allegiances and create enemies where one might never have been. To be good means there is evil; without one, we could never understand the meaning of the other. So we travel on through time and emotion, building something worth fighting for—the cruel emptiness without causing our grip to tighten. But that grip can both smother and let go. That which we hold too tight may retreat and what we give space can simply take more and be gone forever.
This is the tug-of-war we play, never quite sure of our actions or ourselves. In life there are no professionals; we all do our best, entering new territory no other soul has seen. We are all individuals brought up and nurtured in a way that infers upon our beliefs, morals, and capacity to show compassion. Our environment more than any genetic predisposition makes us who we are and sometimes we try too hard to give it the blame. We curse the skies in anger for being placed where we are: location, status, love, etc. No mater how great we have it, there will always be something better. This is our burden, the bane of being self-aware and able to consciously look at our surroundings and strive for more. Sometimes that yearning makes us better people, but more often than not it destroys us.
Director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen understand it all too well. These frequent collaborators are somehow on the pulse of humanity, getting the raw emotion at our core. At times they may go overboard, but ultimately the look into the lives of imperfect people is too true to deny. Like their previous film, Brødre, Hævnen [In a Better World] views the world through a very narrow lens that possesses a surprisingly wide scope. The story is allowed to latch onto normal civilization as the outside force of war seeps in. On the surface it’s a tale of two young boys who become unlikely friends and two fathers trying their best to juggle responsibilities at work and home, but beneath that façade is the framework to go beyond characterization and into the souls of humanity itself. We can place ourselves in the shoes of each person onscreen and remember a situation where we had to choose between emotional and moral right.
Whether it Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) or Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), no one can know if they were correct until the aftermath clears. It doesn’t matter if it’s the deserts of the Sudan, the manufactured safety of a schoolyard, or the unknown mysteries of our minds. Until we see the effect and deal with the consequences, right and wrong are merely words without meaning. We live in the middle ground, constantly thinking up reasons to justify our actions. Even when the deed is too heinous to sanely describe as just, we will do whatever is necessary to pretend. The sad truth is: bullying, fighting, and even killing have their place. They are all needed in our world. We’re all capable of being the bad guy and unfortunately someone often must in order for good to conquer. This is the struggle we see on the faces of Hævnen’s four men—the inner turmoil of their actions.
Young Christian exists in a world without a mother. The cancer uproots him from London and his father, Claus, simply does not know how to be a person his son can rely on. The boy watched his mother die with his father helpless to do anything. Where was his patriarchal duty to protect them? It’s just a concept this boy must learn the truth of too soon, the fantasy of utopic dreams ruined before he’s old enough to shave. And the same goes for Elias too, a constant victim of school bullies and racial epithets for being Swedish in a land of Danes. His father, Anton, attempts to instill the mentality of ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘being the better man’, but those sentiments do nothing as the abuse reigns down. No, for Christian and Elias, their finding one another fills a gapping hole—the former can find control in his ability to stand up for his friend while the latter gets the protector he’s always desired.
You can’t place full blame on the fathers, though. They are doing the best they can. Claus moves back home so his mother can watch Christian, knowing he’ll have to fly back to London constantly for work; Anton sacrifices his family to save the less fortunate abroad. It’s a case of selfish charity on both counts, each doing their duty towards humanity because it makes them feel better for mistakes made at home. Christian watches his wife die, turning bitter and hopeful both their suffering will end; Anton pities himself for the divorce he causes, his penance paid in Africa rather than at with the ones he wronged. They want to be parts of a better world yet never actually do anything to create one. They hide deeper into themselves and turn a blind eye to the problems they have the power to solve. We see this same self-righteous pain behind the stoic looks of each actor—internalized performances brilliantly conceived.
Unfortunately Bier and Jensen can’t find a way to end the drama without punching us in the gut with blatant foreshadowing, unforgivable mirroring, and stakes much higher than the characters’ sense of humility hoped to attain. We want Trine Dyrholm as Elias’ mother Marianne to be positioned as a voice of undivided love, but even she basks in a need for control. The simple fact underlying everything is that no one has control; our actions get away from us and escalate faster than we can keep up with. Anton can show he isn’t afraid of brutish men by taking hits and turning away, but no one can truly believe payback isn’t deserved. Maybe it’s not worth it in suburbia, but what about mass murdering heathens of the African desert? What if you have the power to pause the cycle, no matter how brief, of innocent women brutalized by sick men?
We teach rules about civility without ever being in the position to know whether they’re right. We try to prove to our children how some battles aren’t worth fighting, but instead end up letting the bad guy win for refusing to seek retribution. Sometimes what’s right is wrong and if the adult refuses to understand that truth, the naivety of children becomes confusion and a want to protect ideals ingrained in the heads rather than see the futility or danger in their deeds. In a better world this might not be the case. Alas, this is tragically the world in which we live.
 Left to Right: Mikael Persbrandt as Anton and Trine Dyrholm as Marianne
Photo by Per Arnesen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to Right: Ulrich Thomsen as Claus and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian
Photo by Per Arnesen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Mikael Persbrandt as Anton. Photo by Per Arnesen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics