In a Better World is a curiously unsatisfying movie, which forces me to wonder how it won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I can give it points for its technical merits. It’s competently photographed and edited, it has interesting characters, the performances are decent, and it plunges headfirst into crowd-pleasing drama and conflict. The problem is that director Susanne Bier doesn’t take any of it very far; although the issues she addresses are genuinely challenging, she depicts them in a very simple-minded way, perhaps in an effort to make them more accessible to international audiences (indeed, she’s considered one of Scandinavia’s most bankable filmmakers). She also makes the mistake of addressing issues without really exploring them, resulting in a film that looks pretty but says little if anything.
The are two story lines, although both are very much interconnected. In the first, a Swedish doctor named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) treats refugees in an unspecified African country. Many of his patients are pregnant women, all of whom were sliced open by a sadistic warlord that took bets over the sex of the unborn babies. There will come a point when that warlord, known only as Big Man (Odiege Matthew), comes to Anton with an injury of his own. The dilemma is obvious but compelling nonetheless: Does Anton stick to his principles and treat Big Man’s wound, or does he turn Big Man away for his crimes against humanity? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what decision he makes; without getting into specifics, let’s just say that the resolution of this plot line does not depend on it.
The second story takes place in Denmark. Here, we find Anton’s adolescent son, Elias (Markus Rygaard); he befriends his classmate, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), who has just returned to Denmark from London following the death of his mother. He’s compelled to protect Elias from a school bullies, although no adequate reason is given for this. If reality is any indication, Christian would in all likelihood ignore the situation, since it doesn’t personally affect him. Regardless, there comes a point at which he corners one of the bullies, who’s harassing Elias in the bathroom; Christian first beats the bully with a bicycle pump, then pulls out a knife and threatens to slit his throat. All three boys are, of course, reprimanded for the beating. What floors me is the how the matter is resolved, which is both unsatisfying and implausible. The school bullies are ultimately dropped altogether from the story, although we are left with the knife, which both Christian and Elias deny being in possession of.
When Anton returns, we learn that he’s separated from his wife (Trine Dyrholm) and is, all likelihood, on the verge of divorce. This is understandable, given how his humanitarian efforts keep him away from home for extended periods. What bothers me is that Bier and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen go for the obvious and allude to an affair; it’s a plot device so overused that it has long since lost its ability to surprise me. When Anton breaks up a playground fight between his younger son and a local boy, he finds himself butting heads with the boy’s father, an angry, arrogant, intolerant brute. Anton, who wants to believe he lives in a better world, does nothing when the mechanic slaps him. Elias and Christian, who both witnessed the altercation, urge him not to accept this. Anton tries to alleviate the boys’ frustration by taking them to the mechanic’s garage, where he thinks he can resolve the issue simply by talking. It doesn’t go as planned. And yet again, Anton turns the other cheek.
Christian, enraged by people like the mechanic, devises a revenge plot, one that Elias gets involved with. Whether or not he was a willing participant is open to interpretation. I will not describe Christian’s plans; instead, I will examine Christian, a character I thought was badly developed. Although it’s understandable for a child to be angry at others after the loss of a parent, his treatment of his father (Ulrich Thomsen), who he believes lied to him and wanted his mother to die, is inexcusable. So too is his influence over Elias. For much of the film, we’re led to believe that Christian is a budding psychopath, fueled by hatred. But then we reach the final ten minutes, at which point we witness a change in personality so unlikely that it borders on the miraculous.
There’s a change in personality, but that doesn’t mean there’s resolution. I’m often the first to praise a film for unconventional storytelling techniques, especially open and/or emotionally ambiguous endings. But in the case of In a Better World, it seems less like a stylistic touch and more like an unfortunate narrative oversight – which is to say that Bier and Jensen forgot to supply the screenplay with a final act. By the end, I felt as if I had travelled far but never actually went anywhere. There’s no sense that the story has naturally come to a conclusion, which is not called for in a story this overtly melodramatic. It would be inappropriate of me to say which of the Foreign Language nominees should have won the Oscar, since I missed both Dogtooth and Outside the Law. But I am confident in my assertion that the Academy made the wrong choice with In a Better World.
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