Film Review: In a Better World

With her trademark visceral power, Susanne Bier looks at the world's escalating violence through the eyes of two Danish families, with a detour to Kenya.

Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World fearlessly poses an ethical question: How should an individual respond to a world caught in cycles of self-perpetuating violence and revenge?

To explore this issue, Denmark’s Susanne Bier, director of the powerful After the Wedding (2006), lays out a broad canvas containing two dovetailing stories. The principal one, set in an idyllic corner of Denmark, tracks the response of two teenage boys to a brutal bully at school. Their loving but sometimes clueless parents, meanwhile, are tested by the boys' reckless act of reprisal. The ancillary story, set in Kenya, follows a Doctors without Borders-type medic, who confronts horrific forms of violence that eerily echo the bourgeois miseries back home.

Angsty and suffused with forbidding, the film is also richly human, teasing out ideas from dramatic situations and favoring luminous close-ups reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman that walk you through the characters' emotions.

Bier assembles the elements of her two stories confidently and without hurry, counting on viewer anticipation of how they'll connect. The film is framed by two similar scenes in Kenya of medic Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) driving off in his jeep to waving crowds of children and villagers. But the first departure is haunted by the presence of a tribesman at large who rips opens women's bellies in a bet on the sex of the child she's carrying. Cut to the more “civilized” violence of a Danish boys' school, where buck-toothed Elias (Markus Rygaard) is getting pummeled by the class tyrant. He's defended in kind by new arrival Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen). Viewers will quickly sense that Christian's violence is fueled by helpless rage at the recent cruel death of his mother. He also hates his father for “lying” about her recovery. The boy is a wonderfully conceived character whose anger, though destructive, feels like a logical response to devastating loss.

In contrast to a world ruled by violent reprisals stands Elias' dad, Anton. Leavened by his challenging work in Kenya—which brings only a pinpoint of good, he knows, to a ravaged land—Anton is also separated from his doctor wife (Trine Dyrholm, excellent) whom he continues to pursue. After he's roughed up at the harbor by a burly mechanic, Anton seeks him out, his children in tow. Hoping to demonstrate to the kids the rewards of non-violence, he refuses to defend himself against the thuggish man's blows. It's a brilliant set-piece that you feel could go medieval at any moment.

Persbrandt's Anton, with his sorrowing blue eyes and facial stubble, is the film's moral center and makes for the sort of compulsively watchable Everyman it's hard to imagine played by an American actor. (Ryan Gosling's still too young.) Dyrholm, with her straight platinum hair and harried, alert features, makes studio actresses look like so many photoshopped mannequins. The tech package is superb, still-like close-ups contrasting with excitable, hurtling skies on two continents.

The African wing of the diptych finally resolves in a group reprisal against evil so grim the filmmaker seems almost to forfeit her power of judgment. In contrast, some viewers will feel the European story wraps up, in an overlong coda, a bit too nicely, too neatly, given the darkness of Bier's worldview. Ambitious in scope, In a Better World also at times feels out of control, as if the issues tackled had overflowed Bier's efforts to tame them in a single work. That said, after the lamentable late-winter product of the studios, it's refreshing to encounter a deeply involving film unafraid of raw, visceral emotion, a film that for once thinks almost too big.