Santa Cruz Good Times

Nov 25th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Dark Justice

film_betterworld2Oscar-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.

film_betterworldBusinessman 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.

film_betterwworldBier 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.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger


Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share


Santa Cruz Gives

A look at the organizations we’re asking you to support in our new holiday giving campaign


Simplicity Preparing for Thanksgiving

When we study and apply astrology in our daily lives, we are anchoring new Aquarian thinking. Study, application and use of astrology, understanding its language, builds the new world, the new culture and civilization. Astrologers are able to plan right timing and right action. Next week is Thanksgiving (Thursday, Nov. 26). It’s good to understand the energies influencing us in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. When we know these things we are able to make Right Choices, have Right Action. We link heaven and Earth, our minds with the starry energies that influence us. Let us consider the following influences. The North Node (point in space where sun and moon meet, representing humanity’s present/future pathway) has just entered Virgo. Virgo is about food, purity, cleanliness, service, detail, order and organization. What can we learn from this? Because these energies are available to us we, too, can have intentions and a rhythm of order and organization, purity and cleanliness. Sunday, the sun enters Sag, joining Mercury (we have high ideals, many goals). Tuesday, Mercury/Saturn (structured disciplined thinking) squares Neptune (thoughts, ideas, goals dissolve away). Wednesday is 3 degree Sagittarius solar festival (full moon). Sag’s keynote is, “We see a goal, we achieve that goal, and then we see another.” We might have many plans and goals for Thanksgiving. However, on Thanksgiving those goals may be dashed. Saturn (structure) squares Neptune. All structures and plans dissolve and fall away. What is our response to this? We simplify all that we do. We plan on everything changing. We don’t fret. We adapt instead. Adaptation is the behavior of the Disciple. Sagittarius is the sign of the Disciple. 


The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program


Film, Times & Events: Week of November 20

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments


If you could be someone else for one month, who would it be?

President Obama, so I could change a lot of laws that pertain to people in jail for drug possession and other minor crimes. Raouf Ben Farhat, Petaluma, Self-Employed



Blanc De Blanc Sparkling Wine is best shared with the one you love


Rainy Refuge

Kelly’s offers killer sliders and pumpkin pie, plus dining pet peeves and wine of the week


If you won the lottery, what would be the first three things you did?

Build a restaurant, buy a house for my mom and donate a quarter of the money to the Boys and Girls Club. Jevon Martin, Santa Cruz, Chef