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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.

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Monday, Feb. 8, is Aquarius new moon (19 degrees) and Chinese New Year of the Red Fire Monkey (an imaginative, intelligent and vigilant creature). Monkey is bright, quick, lively, quite naughty, clever, inquiring, sensible, and reliable. Monkey loves to help others. Often they are teachers, writers and linguists. They are very talented, like renaissance people. Leonardo Da Vinci was born in the year of Monkey. Monkey contains metal (relation to gold) and water (wisdom, danger). 2016 will be a year of finances. For a return on one’s money, invest in monkey’s ideas. Metal is related to wind (change). Therefore events in 2016 will change very quickly. We must ponder with care before making financial, business and relationship changes. Fortune’s path may not be smooth in 2016. Finances and business as usual will be challenged. Although we develop practical goals, the outcomes are different than hoped for. We must be cautious with investments and business partnership. It is most important to cultivate a balanced and harmonious daily life, seeking ways to release tension, pressure and stress to improve health and calmness. Monkey is lively, flexible, quick-witted, and versatile. Their gentle, honest, enchanting yet resourceful nature results often in everlasting love. Monkeys are freedom loving. Without freedom, Monkey becomes dull, sad and very unhappy. During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC), the Chinese official title of Marquis (noble person) was pronounced ‘Hou,’ the same as the pronunciation of ‘monkey’ in Chinese. Monkey was thereby bestowed with auspicious (favorable, fortunate) meaning. Monkey years are: 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016.  

 

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