Few American films explore the social and political ramifications of violence; in fact, most of them celebrate violence. Like kids in a public pool on a hot day, filmmakers splash around in the blood they've spilled until they pass out from exhaustion. But thoughtful works about the subject are consigned to commercial exile (or, worse yet, the art-house ghetto) unless someone gives them a prize. Which brings us to In a Better World, Danish director Susanne Bier's overstuffed but effective revenge thesis that won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
After some crosscutting that establishes thematic links among characters who haven't yet met, Bier's melodrama zeroes in on Elias (Markus Rygaard), a boy who's rescued from his schoolyard tormentors by Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a student with no qualms about fighting back bullies. While Elias strikes up a friendship with this angel of vengeance, Elias' father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) has an emerging moral dilemma of his own. Anton, who splits his time between his European home and an unnamed African country where he works for Doctors Without Borders, operates in the shadow of a vicious warlord.
Indifferent or misinformed teachers, absent mothers and distant patriarchs who give their kids too much time to roam all amplify the increasingly fatalistic mood that creeps over events in both Denmark and Africa. Bier, a filmmaker enamored of the human face and the lingering close-up, also shows off some swift, cool stylistic shorthand in spots: A woman's death from cancer is covered in two photographs and one line of dialogue, and Christian's feelings of invincibility and vulnerability are conveyed through a queasy handheld shot that seems to dance on the edge of a grain elevator rooftop.
In a Better World juggles its themes, locales, and characters skillfully until one of Christian's deranged revenge plots comes to tragic fruition. But after that catastrophe, the movie spends an inordinate time tidying up the mess it's spent so much time making. It's like an old realist novel — or a new Spielberg movie — in that it wades hip-deep into moral muck only to yank itself out at the last moment and shower for three days, scrubbing off the dirt and grime it once reveled in.
The advance critical noise around In a Better World has taken the film to task for its "diagrammatic" structure and the way in which it dips its toes into developing countries, but these charges of racism or neocolonialism are based on an imaginary work of sensitive multicultural filmmaking that hasn't been made yet. One hopes such naysayers will rest easier once the teen-approved mayhem proffered by the superhero and sequel armies storm the theater gates and re-establish their preferred brand of thoughtless, market-researched destruction.
Opening Friday, June 3rd