Per Arnesen/Sony Pictures Classic
Cultures, Shocks: A doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) struggles to balance work in a developing-world refugee camp with family strife at home in Denmark, while his estranged wife (Trine Dyrholm) urges him to look after their oft-bullied son.
In A Better World
- Director: Susanne Bier
- Genre: Drama
- Running Time: 113 minutes
Rated R for violent and disturbing content, some involving preteens, and for language
With: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen
In Danish with English subtitles
Considering the number of ethical dilemmas raised in the Danish melodrama In a Better World, I wish I could say I'd been left with more questions rattling around in my head than "What on Earth were the Oscar voters thinking?"
Taking home the trophy for Best Foreign Language Film will certainly help Susanne Bier's earnest treatise on the evil cycle of violence and retribution find an audience at art houses. And there's a lot to be said for a well-acted, attractively shot drama that has its heart so firmly in the right place. But after a few queasy moments at its midpoint, the trajectory of In a Better World becomes so relentlessly platitudinous that an audience that ought to feel seriously rattled will be settling back, feeling comfortably reassured.
That's not true early on, as Bier cuts between Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a humanitarian Danish doctor dealing with the aftereffects of tribal violence in an unspecified African nation, and his put-upon adolescent son Elias (Markus Rygaard), who is at home and being tormented in his father's absence by a school bully.
Elias finds an ally when Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) joins the class — a well-spoken, polite kid whose anger at his mother's recent death (from cancer) needs an outlet. Christian's philosophy about dealing with bullies, which is basically that if you hit back hard enough the first time, you won't need to hit back again, isn't one that school authorities would likely approve. But it changes the dynamics of Elias' life pretty quickly. It also has predictably dire repercussions when the boys decide to apply it to other conflicts.
Papa Anton, meanwhile, is confronted with ethical dilemmas of his own when Big Man, a brutal local warlord whose savagery keeps Anton's operating table full, comes in with a life-threatening wound. From there Bier whips absent parents, pipe bombs, the Hippocratic oath, marital infidelity, impotent authority figures and other ingredients into a potent melodramatic brew that poses but doesn't answer such questions as whether violence is sometimes necessary or always a poisoner of souls, and whether turning the other cheek establishes moral authority or destabilizes social order.
Per Arnesen/Sony Pictures Classics
Elias (Markus Rygaard, left) finds a kindred spirit in Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a seemingly polite boy who encourages him to fight violence with additional violence.
Contrasting warm African golds with chilly Danish greens, the director matches striking visuals with overtly melodramatic situations — children with access to rooftops and fireworks to get your protective juices flowing, predators so unsubtle their comeuppance seems a foregone conclusion.
Bier creates some genuinely disturbing moments — a scene in which Anton allows a bullying father to strike him again and again in front of the kids; a harrowing exchange with Big Man as the thug begins to heal — but resolves them in ways that allow the audience, if not her protagonists, to shrug off moral consequences.
There's sufficient craft that you go along with the twists, even as Bier is wrapping things up with a neatly tied bow. But in a better world, In a Better World would be a better movie.