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In a Better World

In this earnest drama, revenge is a dish best not served.

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Forgiveness makes the man: Ulrich Thomsen and William Jhnk Nielsen
  • Forgiveness makes the man: Ulrich Thomsen and William Jhnk Nielsen

Susanne Bier's domestic drama In a Better World asks: Does violence justify more violence? Is it OK to kill an even worse killer? Are there better solutions for finding justice than revenge? These queries are as old as recorded time -- and in the news this week -- but this languid film won't bring any new insights or provocative scenarios. It's a contrived set-up, underwritten and overly simplistic, the sort of Oprah-ready film that should come with a list of post-screening discussion topics.

Two pre-teen boys become friends when newcomer Christian intercedes violently on behalf of Elias, who is perpetually bullied at school. But schoolyard brawls are just the beginning for troubled Christian, who becomes outraged when Elias' dad is treated disrespectfully. Elias' father is a doctor, whom we join on extended trips to a refugee camp in Africa. There, he dutifully patches up innocent victims of a brutal warlord, until ... that bad man shows up with a grave injury. 

There are some background threads about distant dads, divorce and unresolved grief, but it is these two stories, both of which unfold rather slowly and intertwine awkwardly, that pose the Big Questions. 

Bier (Things We Lost in the Fire) is happy to answer them, though you may already know that violence simply begets more violence, and forgiveness proves the bigger man, at least in theory. But there is also the (perhaps unintended) suggestion that the educated and affluent can control violent tendencies through reason in ways that the working class and poor cannot. (At least two Danish parents take their anger to the sunset-lit summer house, while Africa, once again, is depicted as a one-dimensional place of poverty and animalistic behavior, mitigated by innocent youth playing soccer.)

But Bier's messages about forgiveness or more mature resolutions, which are admirable, don't feel honestly earned. "Shocking" plot twists are neutered by heavy foreshadowing, and the conclusion seems less the natural outcome of messy human behavior than the filmmaker's intent to make a point. Better World has fewer characters and storylines, but it put me in mind of Crash: earnest but facile and didactic. 

In a Better World won this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and while it's not a bad movie, it does seem picked-to-click for a not-particularly-adventurous organization which considers only five non-American films a deep enough pool. It's an easily digested, well-produced drama starring attractive blonde people with an obvious (and agreeable) social message -- a familiar, comforting fable.

 

Directed by Susanne Bier
Starring William Jøhnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard, Mikael Persbrandt
In Danish, with subtitles
Starts Fri., May 6. Manor

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