In a Better World
'In a Better World' puts on the gloves
There’s a kind of movie that wants to show us inhumanity. Then there’s the kind of movie that wants to show us that it knows about inhumanity but would rather show us something comforting instead. “In a Better World’’ is the latter kind, a lachrymose tale of woe, suffering, and moral relativism and the winner of this year’s foreign language Oscar. The movie is swept up in earnest self-importance. The more its makers — the director is Susanne Bier, a Dane — draw cheap contrasts between savagery and civility the less civil and more savage toward them you begin to feel.
The film is set mostly in Denmark but spends blocks of time at an African refugee camp, where a doctor named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) operates on the wounded. Anton is a lionishly handsome Swede who stays for parts of the year in a small Danish town with his unhappy physician wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm). The movie takes a strong interest in the elder of their two sons, Elias (Markus Rygaard), the sort of temporarily funny-looking 12-year-old who invites the harassment of bullies.
The torment is also temporary. Elias befriends Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a small but hard-looking new arrival, who wastes very little time avenging Elias with a knife. It’s the start of a dark friendship, grounded in retaliatory viciousness, that the film gradually begins to prop up against the victims of atrocity back in Anton’s camp. The boys’ principal warns that, “Nothing good comes from fighting,’’ and the movie righteously and naively devotes itself to explaining how true that is. Anton is meant to seem imperfect (he cheated on Marianne) and to have an edge (Persbrandt’s tattoos are now Anton’s), but in the eyes of the film he’s an uncomplicated saint. (There’s some irony in casting Persbrandt, who’s famous in Sweden, in part, for his considerably less passive role as a cop in a slew of “Martin Beck’’ crime movies.)
Bier wrote the “In a Better World’’ film with Anders Thomas Jensen, with whom she also wrote her fine romantic melodramas “Brothers’’ and “Open Hearts.’’ Here, they’re working on a slippery slope. If the movie is to work as an allegory of tribal violence, it can’t do so in such stark juxtaposition. One day, Anton’s younger son unwittingly gets Anton mixed up in a skirmish with the belligerent auto mechanic father (Kim Bodnia) of another child. Anton is pushed around and cursed, but he doesn’t push or curse back. He simply scoops up his son and exits the playground. But Christian, who’s still bitter about the death of his mother and witnesses the playground altercation along with Elias, is beside himself: How could Anton waste an opportunity for violence? (The movie’s far less nauseating Danish title is “Vengeance.’’)
A scene or two later, when he brings the children to the mechanic’s shop for round two, we can see that Anton is simply made of more messianic stuff. Again, he’s roughed up. Again, he takes it serenely. This is a man who’ll never run out of cheeks to turn. The movie offers that scene after having Anton take a good long look at a spider scheming in its web. Is he the spider? Is he refusing to be some other spider’s prey?
Either way, Anton’s enlightened pacifism makes sense given what he’s seen among refugees. But the satisfaction that often spreads across his face can be easily mistaken for the movie’s. When things in Africa escalate after a warlord’s jeep caroms into the camp, he simply reaches into his bag of cheeks. The movie seems to appreciate Anton’s moral promiscuity. Nobility is what separates us from both the men with machetes and the people who retaliate against them. Once the sea-sickening camerawork subsides, we’re allowed to think about where we stand on the question of payback. But the movie merely dips a toe into the matter. It’s difficult not to take the English-language title literally, as the movie tries and fails to equate the children’s interest in violence in Scandinavia with a continent’s humanitarian crisis.
This is another well-meaning movie that uses Third World atrocity to make life seem nicer everywhere else (“Beyond Borders’’ and “The Interpreter’’ come to mind). “In a Better World’’ urges us to feel for Elias and Christian while giving us only stock Africans who serve as little more than opportunities for Anton’s mettle. Otherwise, the country teems with greasy murders and the sort of children who don’t mind chasing a departing truck full of doctors even as it literally and figuratively leaves them in the dust.