Director Susanne Bier likes to juxtapose themes of local and global significance. As of this writing I have yet to see her previous effort, Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), but In A Better World is much more sure-handed in every respect than her 2004 movie, Brothers, which was also about the way events in the greater outside world impact sharply on the private lives of the key characters. In A Better World has a three-tiered narrative united by a common theme, which, as close as I can narrow it down, is the complexity of escalating violence and hatred.
The most immediate level is that of the two school kids Christian and Elias. One of the most effective impressions the movie conveys is that the problems of children feel just as suffocating to them as adult problems do to adults. Christian recently lost his mother to cancer, and is too young to deal with the loss, and not getting enough support from his father. So he develops, Dexter-like, a “dark passenger”, discovering that violence is an easy way to solve several of his immediate problems, and not understanding that such a strategy is only making things worse. Elias, hesitantly, comes along for the ride. Elias has a strained relationship with his mother, who has recently separated from his father over an unspecified event (a girl is mentioned but never seen; presumably she was a child that died). Elias’ father, Anton, is periodically away from home, serving as a doctor in a violent part of Africa, where he sees things on a daily basis that would traumatize anybody. But Anton is soft-spoken and pacifistic; an island of calm and care in a world of pervasive emotional and political turmoil.
The second level is the personal problems of the adults, which involve a deteriorating marriage and a dysfunctional relationship with their children. The emotional misery of the adult world causes ripples into the children’s world, which cause ripples back again.
The third level is international; geo-political. People killing each other in Africa, perpetuating meaningless cycles of violence. Reactions to all three levels come together in the main characters in different ways. When Elias’ younger brother gets into a brawl with another kid at a playground, and Anton gently separates the children, the other kid’s thuggish father, Lars, hits Anton in front of Elias and Christian. To their consternation, Anton does not hit back. Christian later devises a bomb with which to blow up Lars’ car as payback. It does not go well.
The coherence of the plot and the character dynamics are very impressive in a business where good plots and proper character motivations are increasingly hard to find. Gratifyingly, the script expertly fills in most of the necessary details in the course of the story, making almost everything that happens logical, understandable and brilliantly intertwined. At the same time, the effectiveness of the character-driven story depends entirely on the performances of the actors, and they all do a practically flawless job.
However, the resolution of the plot is not entirely satisfying. I happen to like happy endings a lot, but for a theme as complex as this – deeply rooted personal problems and violent trouble on an international arena – the predictable solution to the characters’ troubles doesn’t ring entirely true. The multi-level conflict receives a pedestrian one-level solution which wraps everything up far too neatly.
One wonders what the title, “In A Better World”, is supposed to mean. Has the better world arrived by the end, or does it refer to some dream of an imagined better world in the future? Or is it the point that the movie itself is a better world, in which a simple solution can work? This doesn’t seem clear. But then, maybe it isn’t meant to. The many ways of interpreting the movie is a testament to its success. Anton, when attacked, specifically turns the other cheek and generally behaves largely like Jesus, tirelessly wanting to save everybody. Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt is stunning as Anton, and is really putting himself on the map with this movie (as evidenced by his presence in the upcoming Hobbit movies). In general, it is a strikingly poignant movie which raises many questions and offers much to think about, and which is intense and dramatic enough to make you sit with a lump in your throat almost throughout.
In A Better World is out on DVD and Blu-ray on January 9, 2012.
Dir.: Susanne Bier
Cast: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard, Kim Bodnia and others
Runtime: 119 min.
Country: Denmark / Sweden