In a Better World ** ½
Directed by: Susanne Bier.
Written by: Anders Thomas Jensen.
Starring: Mikael Persbrandt (Anton), William Jøhnk Jues Nielsen (Christian), Markus Rygaard (Elias), Ulrich Thomsen (Claus), Trine Dyrholm (Marianne), Camilla Gottlieb (Eva), Simon Maagaard Holm (Sofus), Toke Lars Bjarke (Morten), Kim Bodnia (Lars), Odiege Matthew (Big Man).
As in her previous films, In a Better World plays like a moral puzzle – a kind of what would you do scenario placed in front of the audience, in which there may be no right answer, but there is a certainly a wrong one. The film involves two families, who undergo crises before the movie begins. In one, Claus’ (Ulrich Thomsen) wife dies of cancer, leaving him to raise their adolescent son Christian (William Johnk Juels Nielsen) by himself – although he is a busy businessman who spends most of his time in London, leaving his son in Denmark with his grandmother. In the other, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) has cheated on his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), and they are going through a divorce, which is hard on their son Elias (Markus Rygaard). Making it harder, is the fact that Anton runs a clinic in an unnamed African country, and is away much of the time.
Elias is picked on mercilessly at his school by a bully named Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm). As the new kid, Christian doesn’t fare much better with Sofus, but unlike Elias, he is determined not to simply sit back and take it. After an ugly incident, where Sofus gets the best of both Elias and Christian, Christian vows revenge. When he sees Sofus follow Elias into the bathroom, he sees his opportunity – jumping Sofus from behind, beating him mercilessly with a bike pump, and threatening him with a knife. After that – although the school is not thrilled with what happened (but cannot prove Christian had a knife), Sofus leaves them both alone – and the two boys bond. Hence, violence seems to have acted as a solution to their problem.
But things are never that simple – as seen in the two other plot threads in the movie. One involves Anton getting into a confrontation with another father – in front of Christian and Elias – whether the other man, a bully named Lars, slaps Anton and instead of fighting back he walks away. Pressured by his son, and his son’s friend, for being a wimp, he takes the boys to see Lars at his garage to try and talk things out – but that doesn’t appear to be Lars’ strong suit. Christian, having gotten revenge once through violence, decides to try it again on Lars – this time on a larger scale. Elias is a mixed up kid, who doesn’t really want to get involved – but on the other hand, he doesn’t want to lose his one friend. The other plot thread takes place in Africa, where the area around Anton’s clinic is run by a psychopath known as Big Man – who when he sees a pregnant woman, enjoys betting with his men over what the sex of the baby is, and then cutting open the mother to see whose right. When he comes to the clinic, in need of medical attention, Anton has to decide whether or not to let him die, which undoubtedly would save lives, or following his oath as a doctor.
All of this sounds much more fascinating that it actually plays however. In a Better World, for the most part, is a muddled film that is weighed down by its own thudding sense of importance. It is a film that tries to speak out against the violence in which it portrays, but in doing so leaves the viewer with a sense of futility. After all, Sofus would not leave Christian and Elias alone had it not been for violence. Lars learns absolutely nothing for his conflict with Anton. And the world is a better place without the Big Man around. The authority figures in the movies – the teachers, the police – seem impotent and unable to do anything to curb the violence. The fathers, although they are well meaning and love their kids, are absent and do not really know how to get through to them. Christian and Elias are the lone characters in the movie that feel somewhat real – Elias especially, since he is a conflicted kid expertly played by Rygaard. Christian is a more complex character, and Nielsen is terrific in the role, which is all the more impressive, since the screenplay can never really decide on who Christian is. Is he a budding young psychopath, just one step removed from becoming a school shooter, or is he a sad, bitter kid because his mother died, just going through some preadolescent anger and rebellion? Bier goes to great lengths to draw parallels between the third world and the first world – something she accomplished much better in both Brothers and After the Wedding – but here, it comes across and preachy and somewhat pretentious. As the movie goes along, it starts to manipulate the audience’s emotions more and more – manipulations that feel like the filmmakers are simply trying to extract tears for us, rather than earning those tears.
All of this isn’t to say that In a Better World is an awful movie. It isn’t. A lot of the movie works, and it kept me fascinated throughout. But I walked away from In a Better World not knowing what Bier thought about her subject and feeling anger at the blatant manipulation on display in the movie. For me, Bier remains a talented filmmaker – one whose next film I will look forward to – but Oscar win or not, this feels like a misstep to me.