Winner of this year's Oscar as best foreign-language film, Susanne Bier's In a Better World is an intriguing examination of the ideas of revenge and forgiveness, seen through the prism of both parents and children.
Bier offers no easy solutions to this frequently unsolvable equation. And, despite strong performances and harrowing moments, she still manages to wrap things up too neatly to be truly compelling.
The film opens with Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor working for an organization that might be Doctors Without Borders in an African desert, dispensing medical care at a refugee camp. He is troubled by the fact that he continues to have to save the lives of pregnant women, who have been brutalized by a local warlord called the Big Man. The Big Man likes to wager on what the sex of the women's babies will be, then slice them open to settle the wager.
Back home, his family -- which lives in Denmark -- is having problems of its own. Specifically, it's his oldest son, 10-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), who is being bullied at school. But Anton is separated from his wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), also a doctor, and he's in Africa, in any case.
Elias, however, makes a new friend: Christian (William Nielsen), whose father (Ulrich Thomsen) has moved him back to Denmark from London, where they lived until the death of Christian's mother, of cancer. So Dad parks Christian in the house of his grandmother, then goes back on the road on business.
Christian, who doesn't appear to cry at his mother's funeral, is a stern and angry child who doesn't believe in forgiving and forgetting. So when the same bully that bothers Elias at school turns his attention on Christian, Christian comes back the next day, beating the bully mercilessly with a bike-tire pump, then putting a knife to his throat.
That wins Christian Elias' undying gratitude and friendship. But Christian is a kid with a restless curiosity and an unhealthy attitude toward his own safety. His favorite place in town is the roof of a huge grain silo, from which he can see the whole town -- and which is definitely off-limits for kids.
Anton commutes between Africa and Denmark, dropping in on his real life, which seems placid and comfortable compared to his work in Africa. But it also is distancing, since his wife still hasn't forgiven him for an affair he had. And he's not really tuned in to his kids' lives.
Still, he's a dad - and so he steps in when his younger son is bullied by a child on a playground. When the child's rough father takes issue with Anton -- and even slaps him and tells him to bug off -- both Christian and Elias are stunned.
Anton tries to explain himself -- that fighting isn't the solution, that revenge is not the answer. Still, to make a point that bad behavior should not simply be tolerated, he takes the boys with him as he goes to confront the man about the violence. The man, however, merely slaps him again -- several times. But Anton takes it, calmly telling his attacker that he's proving nothing except his own insufficiency.
To the boys, however, it's a shocking encounter - one that Christian cannot let go. The man, he says, needs to be taught a lesson. Even as Christian plots, Anton returns to Africa, where he finds the Big Man needs his help as a patient. Can he treat him medically, knowing that the man will simply go back to murdering and torturing when he is healed?
Despite the dramatic conflict, there is something flat and schematic about Bier's story -- and predictable as well, in a finale that shows Christian and Elias exacting their revenge on the man who humiliated Anton. You see the finale coming -- and the cost isn't sufficient for the characters to really make a point.
Or maybe that's the point.
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