Oscar-winner probes psychology of violence 'In A Better World'
No one can accuse Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier of making safe movies. In intimate human dramas like Open Hearts and After the Wedding, she tackles cataclysmic human themes (fidelity, desire, betrayal, redemption) in shrewd, unflinchingly honest personal terms, defying assumptions and refusing to assign blame. Her harrowing new film, recent Foreign Language Oscar-winner In a Better World, is no less intimate, but Bier reaches further out of her comfort zone than ever with a larger thematic story that confronts issues of violence, bullyism, and revenge.
For the most part, Bier brings off this ambitious project with—literally—breathtaking skill. Working again from a script by longtime collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen, she explores the psychology of brutishness at many levels, from the schoolyard to a Third World military strongman, considers various degrees of response, and charts the consequences of violence and vengeance through the interwoven, parallel stories of two families. It's bracing stuff, almost thriller-like in the way it keeps viewers clutching their arm rests, dreading what may come next as this scrupulous morality play unfolds.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor working in a windy tent city of a refugee camp in Africa. Patient, caring, and skilled, Anton mostly treats injuries and fever, but he and his staff must always be ready to leap into the makeshift surgery whenever the locals bring in the victims of "Big Man," a sadistic marauder roving the countryside with a paramilitary-style army of thugs who preys on pregnant women. Anton is in the process of separating from his Danish wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who cares for their two sons back in Denmark, but he's extremely close to his boys. The eldest, 12-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), is routinely tormented by a hulking bully at school.
Businessman Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) has just lost his wife, after a long battle with cancer. He and his son, Christian (William Johnk Juels Nielsen) have recently moved from London back home to his mother's house in Denmark. Coping with his loss, Claus worries that Christian is internalizing his own grief, yet the boy coolly rebuffs his father's every attempt to talk things out.
The boys, Christian and Elias, meet at school. When Christian takes a swift and effective reprisal against the school bully, he and Elias become fast and loyal friends. But while Christian's action seems almost heroic at first, or at least justified, as the story plays out, Christian's growing obsession with his dark brand of "justice" expands to a menacing degree, creating a whirlpool of misplaced rage and danger that threatens to sweep everyone up in its inexorable path.
This is a delicately wrought drama of fathers and sons. Claus' earnest attempts to bond with his stoic son are heartbreaking. Anton and Elias are emotionally close, but Anton is often physically absent while his son endures hell at school. But Anton is home for one of the story's central events, an encounter with a bellicose stranger in the park who taunts and shoves Anton in front of Elias and Christian. Anton won't be drawn into a fight. ("He's an idiot," he tells the boys, "If I fight him, then I'm an idiot.") But his attempt to set an example of maturity is at odds with their juvenile notion of winning and losing.
This motif of evening up the score, and the sick cycles of violence and revenge that follow, echo throughout the film. (And Bier doesn't mind drawing specific, ironic parallels; when "Big Man" needs a doctor and invades Anton's tent hospital, but Anton calmly sets his own terms, the bully rants, "I decide!") The splintering relationship of Anton and Marianne also plays into this theme; in a resonant late-night phone call, we learn a bit about what he's done that she can't forgive, and what it's cost them both.
Bier has a canny eye for the way petty animosities can erupt into pathology, whether personal, societal, or national. (Both Elias and Anton are taunted for being Swedes.) Not every note rings absolutely true (the sudden reformation on the school bully seems a bit facile), but overall this is a beautifully acted and provocative thinking-person's drama.
IN A BETTER WORLD ★★★ 1/2 Watch film trailer >>>
With Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Markus Rygaard, and William Johnk Juels Nielsen. Written by Anders Thomas Jensen. Directed by Susanne Bier. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 119 minutes. In Danish and Swedish with English subtitles.
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