When In a Better World won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar during February’s ceremony, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences just kept perpetuating the sad fact that—most of the time—they will only reward a director’s work until it adjusts to the middlebrow tastes they have come to value so much. Take Susanne Bier’s work over the course of the last decade. From the Dogme 95 entry Open Hearts, to her absolutely stunning international breakthrough Brothers, whose political content was sadly extracted for the tepid American remake a few years later, she has established herself as a force to be reckoned with in world cinema.
Always concerned with the dynamics and parallels of the first and third worlds, she has crafted clever post-colonialist pieces that work because they have never been preachy or self-indulgent. In her movies, her characters aren’t drawn to the Middle East to fulfill dramatic purposes, she always makes an excellent use of European social conscience as means, not ends to whatever else she’s trying to say in her films. Working closely with writer Anders Thomas Jensen (who, of all things, was also a story supervisor in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist) her characters usually succumb to personal disasters while the social problems around them are just additional layers of their existence.
This has proved successful for Bier, which is why In a Better World is a slight disappointment. This time a big part of her film takes place in Sudan, where Swedish doctor Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) works treating refugees who are being victimized by a sadistic warlord who opens pregnant women to see if they will have sons who might help his cause when they grow up. Anton’s wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) lives in Denmark with their two young sons. Their oldest son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is in middle school where he’s constantly being terrorized by bullies. Anton and Marianne are separated and Elias’ teachers attribute this to part of his problems, instead of concentrating completely on the bullying.
At the same time we meet Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) who moves from London to Denmark after the death of his wife. His son Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) enrolls at Elias’ school and they bond after Christian stands up for his new friend when bullies try to beat him. Soon we learn that Christian carries more than good intentions with him, he also happens to think highly about the concept of seeking justice, and beats Elias’ biggest enemy, in the process deciding he’ll also become a vigilante of sorts and make justice for those he loves. At home, the young boy barely talks to his father, but with Elias he becomes a leader and takes charge of things with eerie confidence.
Here, Bier starts making us question what the concept of justice actually means, when we have to adjust ourselves to rules that often work against our best interests. In a fascinating interview which is included as a bonus in this Blu-ray edition, the director assures us that she never really implied she had the answers to the questions she offers. All she was interested in was creating a different viewpoint of what Europe actually is. In her attempt to expose the “fragile Danish society”, the director ends up delivering a spooky study that becomes especially prescient in light of the recent chilling Oslo massacre and bombings.
In a Better World is a timely portrait of the recent, and still surprising, shift in thinking of the Nordic region not as a Utopian beacon of peace, development and morality, but as a boiling pot of repressed perfection, leading to unexpected bursts of violence. The topics at stake in the film then are fascinating from an ethical and philosophical point of view but lazily executed. For the first time in a Bier movie, the use of the third world comes not as a subtle juxtaposition but a device specifically at the service of relieving white guilt.
As the children in the film become obsessed with violence and the concept of revenge; the film’s title in Danish, Hævnen, means in fact “the revenge”, the corny translation confirms how the film is trying to adjust to Hollywood paramenters. Bier relies more on cliché techniques than the usually elegant twists she has used in the past. Despite the film’s superb acting—the work delivered by the children is particularly good and Dyrholm is remarkable, even if her best moment is limited to the deleted scenes found in the supplement materials—In a Better World leaves you with a bittersweet aftertaste, because despite its potential it really feels like a beautifully shot public service announcement.