Film review: In a Better World

In a Better World
2010
Zentropa

STARRING Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard
WRITTEN BY Susanne Bier, Anders Thomas Jensen
PRODUCED BY Sisse Graum Jørgensen
DIRECTED BY Susanne Bier

SHOT BY Morten Søborg
EDITED BY Pernille Bech Christensen, Morten Egholm
MUSIC BY Johan Söderqvist
DISTRIBUTED BY Nordisk Film

Screened 2011-04-06

[2015-04-26: Future Dave apologizes for this lousy review. Don’t know how he thought he could get away with that.]

Winner of the Best Foreign Language FIlm at the 2011 Oscars, In a Better World is then, clearly, an alright film. Not a great film. It is directed by former dogme dabbler Susanne Bier, who delivered 2007’s thoughtful yet stagnant Things We Lost in the Fire. This is a moralizer and it could be a great deal worse. There is a father, Anton (Persbrandt), and his time is spent healing the desperately poor in a Sudanese refugee camp or with his family in civilized Denmark, and on both fronts all his energy goes towards dissipating aggression. Anton’s son has made a new friend, the morose and disturbed Christian (the well-cast Nielsen), whose unanswerable grief leads him to commit or plan acts of vengeance. – – – I find myself totally disinterested in detailing this film, so I’ll hit the bullet points… Father – anton. Wife, bitter, they fight, they’re separated. He’s in Sudan whenever he can be, helping people who really need it. New father and son move to town, daddy and Christian – just lost wife/mother to cancer. Father is depressed but Christian is disturbed. Bully at school, Christian practically maims him in vengeance. Local racist mechanic (racist towards Swedes, in case viewer is unaware of long-standing inane hatred between the two countries) bullies Anton, Christian witnesses this and formulates insane plan to build pipebomb and destroy his car. So Anton fights battles on two fronts involving inexplicable hatred and vengeful acts, and does his darnedest to illustrate to all that one act of hatred only spurns another, until this vicious volley brings its participants inexorably to war. Maybe if the film wasn’t quite so serious I wouldn’t have minded being obligated to explain it all.

OK, back to my “prepared statement” mode:
Something about Better World felt very “American Beauty” to me… perhaps it’s the middling undercurrent of misanthropy which metamorphosizes into optimism, or the casual indulgence in sociopathy, or the gaining momentum of doom, and certainly the plain old attempt at moralizing. In a Better World asks big questions and its failing is in its understated hubris in answering those questions… that and the way everything is neatly explained, wrapped up, taken care of – no harm done. …No harm done?! No harm done by the Sudanese Amin-like despot, who “gets his comeuppance three times over?” No harm done by the noble but self-righteous father who continually confronts violent aggressors? No harm done by the poor mother, wounded, emotionally starved into bitterness, who lashes out now and then? And no harm done by young Christian, the complex and dangerous misanthrope? Christian became violent when pushed to despair after the death of his mother – but it isn’t as if that explains everything. The abyss between father and son, the lack of paternal intimidation, or understanding, or capacity of the father to handle his shifty dynamo son… Christian will have an interesting life, indeed – if he avoids being committed or jailed – but anybody who leaves the theater thinking that Christian’s catharsis “solved” him is, I fear, far off the mark. Better World could’ve benefitted from American Beauty‘s cynical insouciance and levity (the more times I say “American Beauty” the more I can’t believe it was chosen as the title. That film epitomizes what the Academy would like to award). See Better World so that you’ll be forced to think about the big questions – just don’t listen to the film’s answers. How do we deal with aggressors? How much compassion can we muster – should we muster? How much good is civilization if we can’t handle these people? Death, jail… the best we can offer? Really?

written by David Ashley

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