What does it mean to set an example? Can a show of great violence stop further violence? Can a show of great peace cause peace? Susanne Bier’s In a Better World explores these questions but it never manages to find their dramatic weight. The film features some gorgeous cinematography, interesting characters, and solid performances, but they never coalesce into a compelling story. The narrative has trouble finding its pace as it jumps between various characters and their struggles, but never builds much tension. At its best, it’s a cold, meditative drama and at its worst, it comes off like The Adventures of Young Punisher.
Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard) are two boys living in Denmark. Both boys are outsiders dealing with their own strife. Christian is originally from London, but has recently moved to Denmark since the recent death of his mother. Elias is a Swede who is constantly bullied because of his ethnicity (I didn’t know that Danes hated Swedes!) and his dental retainer which earns him the name of “rat-face”. The story also focuses on Elias’ father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who works in an impoverished African village that is being plagued by a ruthless warlord who gets his kicks from cutting up pregnant women.
Christian attempts to protect Elias from a bully only to get a basketball to the face for his troubles. The next day, the bully is once again hounding Elias but Christian comes to the rescue by beating the crap out of the bully with a bicycle pump and then breaking out a knife and threatening to slit the bully’s throat. Christian’s philosophy is that if you hit back hard enough, you won’t have to fight any more. Bier is careful to make sure that although Christian’s actions throughout the film become increasingly violent, we know that he’s not a psychopath. He’s an angry young boy who wrongly blames his mother’s death on his father. He wants to control the world again and he thinks he can do that by making jerks pay for their transgressions.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Anton. He believes that passivity is the best way to deal with the evils of the world. He thinks that by not fighting back, he is above the fray and has truly won the battle. Bizarrely, the film tests Anton’s beliefs but never Christian’s. Furthermore, Elias is never really torn between the two sides. He simply drifts around Christian and provides witness to his new friend’s unsettling attitude. The narrative becomes even more strained as we witness the martial problems between Anton and his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and the helplessness of Christian’s father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). Bier attempts to provide a richness to the narrative by supplying all these character arcs, but it spreads the story too thin and makes the pacing feels haphazard.
There’s no egregious error in the film. The performances are fine, there are some gorgeous wide shots, and the story raises some interesting moral questions. But it never finds the emotional pulse it needs even though it looks for it in Christian’s relationship with his father, Anton’s relationship with Marianne, and the friendship between the boys. In a Better World has some good ideas that never take off because it keeps missing the emotional core of the characters and their relationships.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:
- Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
- Benavides Born
- Bobby Fischer Against the World
- Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
- The Details
- Higher Ground
- Hobo with a Shotgun
- The Interrupters
- The Lie
- Like Crazy
- Magic Trip
- Martha Marcy May Marlene
- The Music Never Stopped
- My Idiot Brother
- Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times
- Project Nim
- Red State
- Salvation Boulevard
- These Amazing Shadows
- Win Win