Director: Susanne Bier
Writers: Anders Thomas Jensen
Cinematographer: Morten Søborg
Starring: Mikael Persbrandt, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Ulrich Thomsen, Markus Rygaard
Studio/Runtime: Sony Pictures Classics/119 min.
Because it’s foreign, In a Better World is destined to be categorized as a work of art cinema, that strange world of documentaries and characters speaking in languages other than English. But, origin aside, it’s a Hollywood prestige picture through and through, full of simplistic plotting, easy affirmations of Western values and a feel-good ending that negates any vague sense of realism. That it won the Oscar for best foreign-language film (ironically much of the picture is in English) is no surprise, as it seems tailor-made for that dubious honor.
In a Better World focuses on two boys growing up in Denmark, who become friends due to mutual alienation at school. When one of them is picked on by a local bully, largely because of his Swedish background, the other beats the bully with a bicycle pump and threatens to knife him should the bully ever try anything again. Having successfully stopped their schoolyard harassment, the pair turns toward greater vigilantism in their community, with much higher stakes. Straddling this main story are subplots about the dissolution of both these boys’ families and a lengthy, extremely problematic story of one of the child’s father, working as a doctor in a foreign nation.
This second half of the film is where In a Better World truly falters. While the story of these two children could on its own be a morality tale, coupled with this rather lengthy secondary story the film becomes not just heavy-handed but also patronizing and downright offensive. As the film’s credits are rolling we see this doctor throwing a soccer ball to members of whatever unspecified third-world nation the film is set in and he’s immediately deified by the locals. Only the white Westerner can solve their problems, we soon learn, and things only go downhill from there. The movie doesn’t show us individuals being treated at a clinic, instead we’re offered a nameless mass that’s being used for symbolic weight—its lack of care for the context where and who these people are and what conflict they’re in is indicative of how little it cares about them in general.
The story of the children is significantly better, due primarily to preternaturally good performances from the kids. The best part of the In a Better World is the objective way it captures difficult family relationships, little gestures and movements that define who we are and what we wish to communicate but can’t speak. But the story itself is obvious and hinges so heavily on coincidences that it fails to lead these two characters into anywhere unexpected. Any depth this story has on its own is unfortunately sapped by the way In a Better World forces comparisons with the third-world nation part of the film down its audience’s throat, particular with its implicit commentary that these two situations are the same when that’s not at all the case.
That sort of simplification for ease of viewing is endemic to In a Better World, which considers several ways of exploring the idea that violence begets more violence (its original title roughly translates to “revenge”) and in every way stops looking as soon as it hits the surface. While it features a few powerful moments and impressive cinematography, the film manages to say nothing new about its themes and does so in a particularly out-of-touch manner.