Wars on civility, and civil wars
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, April 8, 2011
From brutish schoolyard justice to tribal savagery, ritualized male aggression earns agonizingly somber scrutiny in Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” which won the Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film.
A meticulous, elegantly filmed drama that spans a chaotic refugee camp in Africa and a serene coastal town in Denmark, this meditation on violence explores the toxic knock-on effect of powerlessness and overcompensation, delivering a potent essay on the roots of society’s most primal evils. Methodically paced and superbly staged to create a mounting sense of dread, “In a Better World” plays like a testosterone overdose by slow drip.
The film opens with what may be one of the most patronizing cliches in contemporary cinema: a group of happy, shouting African children running behind a pickup. Sitting in the vehicle’s cramped bed is Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a physician with Doctors Without Borders who performs emergency surgeries in a windy, dusty tent set up in the middle of nowhere. When a young woman arrives after having the baby she was carrying ripped out of her womb, Anton learns that such attacks are the trademark of a local warlord, who delights in the torture and maiming of his tribal enemies.
Anton’s world back in Denmark bears all the hallmarks of being more civilized, but forboding tensions roil the surface of his quiet, seaside life. His marriage with Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) has suffered a rupture, and his 10-year-old son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is being bullied at school. When a new student named Christian (William Johnk Juels Nielsen) arrives on the scene, Elias experiences fleeting notions of hope that his status might change.
With its chilly Nordic setting and themes of bullying and revenge, “In a Better World” initially recalls the inventive vampire thriller “Let the Right One In.” But Bier is less interested in genre conventions than in the minute calibrations of human behavior, those slight movements of the inner needle that can mean the difference between self-control and inhumanity at its most irrational and vile. As much an inquiry into complacent liberal pieties as reflexive violence, “In a Better World” uses the backdrop of an elementary school to examine forces that, writ larger, animate geopolitics at their most cataclysmic, from fragile alliances to arms escalation.
Meanwhile, in Africa, Anton must grapple with the bloody aftermath of bullying at its most pathological, and his ethical obligations to treat every patient who comes to him for help. “Nothing good can ever come from fighting,” a character intones at one point, but Bier makes viscerally palpable the impulse to push back hard on a morally corrupt oppressor. If its climactic scenes fall too easily into neat schematic place, “In a Better World” nonetheless presents viewers with a thoughtful, timely work by a filmmaker of sensitivity and assurance.
Contains violent and disturbing content, some involving preteens, and for profanity. In English, Danish and Swedish with English subtitles.