A Do-Gooder Vision Clouded by Blind Spots
“In a Better World,” directed by the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier and written by Anders Thomas Jensen, is an elegant, somber scourge for the guilty conscience of the affluent, liberal West. Or, to put it another way, “In a Better World” is the winner of the 2011 Academy Award for best foreign language film. I’m not trying to be glib — well, maybe a little — but rather to put my finger on the merits and limitations of this ethically serious, aesthetically graceful and curiously bloodless movie.
The film’s strategically vague title gestures toward a lofty, earnest desire so familiar and unobjectionable that it is scarcely recognizable as an ideology. Who does not imagine, or wish for, a better world? The do-gooder gospel of universal improvement — helping others, reforming ourselves, making a difference — is what remains of an older, grander, more avowedly political utopian impulse. It also represents the secular residue of a powerful religious pattern of thought that linked spiritual righteousness with pure thoughts and selfless deeds.
“In a Better World” affirms the modern version of this faith — human rights abroad, therapy and wholesome food at home — by subjecting it to a sympathetic critique. Conscientiously pointing out the blind spots and contradictions that undermine ideals of justice and nonviolence, Ms. Bier nonetheless delivers a parable that is more soothing than disturbing. Our hearts are surely in the right place, and while virtue may be its own reward, material comfort is pretty nice too. The better world is there if we want it to be.
The film’s embodiment of moral commitment — which can also be a form of moral vanity — is Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor whose semi-estranged wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), lives with their two young sons in Denmark. When he is not at home with them, negotiating an uneasy separation with Marianne and trying to bond with the boys, Anton works at a refugee camp in an African country that resembles Sudan. Among his patients are victims of a ruthless warlord whose fighters slash the bellies of pregnant women with machetes.
Anton, handsome with sandy hair, gray-flecked stubble and weary blue eyes, faces the horror stoically, at least at first. But violence at home, combined with the brutality he witnesses on the job, causes his facade of certainty to crack.
His older son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is continually picked on at school, especially by a towheaded bully whose abuse is tinged with anti-Swedish bigotry. A new boy, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), befriends Elias and pushes him from meek resignation to revenge.
Christian, whose father (Ulrich Thomsen) is frequently away in London, lives mainly with his grandmother, having recently lost his mother to cancer. Christian’s buried grief has wound itself into a tight spring of rage and resentment, and it finds expression in a coldly rational, self-justifying impulse toward violence. He attacks Elias’s tormentor with a bicycle pump, beating him so badly that the boy is taken to the hospital and the police are called to the school.
That act of juvenile vigilantism — which would no doubt find an approving audience on YouTube — is prelude to a more sinister and sustained campaign of retribution. The target this time is a garage mechanic involved in a playground dustup with Anton after their children fight over a swing. Anton’s refusal to fight back and his muddled attempt to turn his pacifism into a Gandhian teaching moment solidify Christian’s conviction that something must be done. And so Christian and Elias, who is malleable and confused but grateful for the solidarity of a real friend, start building pipe bombs after school, using gunpowder from discarded fireworks and instructions downloaded from the Internet.
Meanwhile, the warlord has come to Anton’s clinic, seeking treatment, which the doctor, adhering to a strict reading of his profession’s code of ethics, provides. (It is interesting to note that an almost identical dilemma is faced by the monks in Xavier Beauvois’s “Of Gods and Men.”) The juxtaposition of the father’s predicament with the son’s makes for some powerful scenes, but it also exposes Ms. Bier’s programmatic intentions and schematic methods. Here, in case we missed them, are the urgent themes and big questions: Is violence so deeply ingrained in the human character that even the best of us will embrace or condone it? Or can we transcend our brute instincts and find a higher law than might makes right?
Questions worth asking, for sure. And in many ways Ms. Bier — whose other recent films include the powerful “Brothers” (whose English-language remake starred Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman) and the overwrought “Things We Lost in the Fire” — succeeds in putting dramatic flesh on what is at heart a fairly sterile allegory. The performances are impeccable, and Mr. Rygaard and Mr. Nielsen have faces that seem uncannily to reflect their characters’ contrasting temperaments. And the images, of verdant Denmark and parched Africa, are lovely without being too ostentatiously gorgeous.
But everything about “In a Better World” feels just a little too easy: a better movie might have let in more of the messiness of the world as it is. This one falls into cheap manipulation, winding up the audience with foreboding music and the spectacle of blond children in peril. There is also an element of caricature in the way the film incarnates violence in blue-collar and third world characters, as if only the privileged had the luxury of choosing something else.
And so the movie, not withstanding the wide vista and hopeful (or provocative) tone of its title, comes to rest in a narrow, complacent worldview. It takes you to some disturbing places and leaves you comfortably more or less where you started, but feeling just a little better about yourself. Did I mention that it won an Academy Award?
“In a Better World” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Bad things happen.
IN A BETTER WORLD
Directed by Susanne Bier; written by Anders Thomas Jensen, based on a story by Ms. Bier and Mr. Jensen; director of photography, Morten Soborg; edited by Pernille Bech Christensen; music by Johan Soderqvist; production design by Peter Grant; costumes by Manon Rasmussen; produced by Sisse Graum Jorgensen; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In Danish, Swedish and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.
WITH: Mikael Persbrandt (Anton), Trine Dyrholm (Marianne), Ulrich Thomsen (Claus), Markus Rygaard (Elias), William Johnk Nielsen (Christian), Bodil Jorgensen (Headmaster), Elsebeth Steentoft (Signe), Martin Buch (Niels), Anette Stovlebaek (Hanne) and Kim Bodnia (Lars).
Synopsis: The lives of two Danish families cross each other, and an extraordinary but risky friendship comes into bud. However, loneliness, frailty and sorrow lie in wait.
What You Need To Know: Susanne Bier doesn’t really get that much mainstream or even international name recognition, but “After the Wedding” (starring Mads Mikkelsen) was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007, her 2004 drama, “Brødre” was remade into “Brothers” last year by Jim Sheridan (it could not top the original despite strong performances) and 2007’s “Things We Lost in the Fire” starring Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry —her English-language feature debut—was right up there with all the criminally overlooked films that came out that year (it was also Berry’s best performance since “Monster’s Ball” in what has become an incredibly dodgy career). For ‘Better World’ she’s gone back to her Danish roots in a picture about revenge and forgiveness that stars Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt (he also scored a role in “The Hobbit” this year) and Trine Dyrholm, perhaps best remembered for starring in Thomas Vinterberg‘s 1998 Dogme 95 film, “The Celebration.” A family drama that sounds like it has deep consequences, Bier’s films generally pull no emotional punches, so we’re hope she continues her winning streak here.
Release Date: Premieres in the U.S. at Sundance 2011, hits theaters properly April 2011.