Hollywood movies are regularly criticized for their tacked-on happy endings while European art-house fare often ends in despair. As if to singlehandedly reverse this trend, Danish director Susanne Bier in "In a Better World" has made a movie that would make Pollyanna blush.
Despite its overweening tone of serioso realism, the movie – which won this year's Oscar for best foreign-language film, no less – exhibits little or no understanding of how real people actually behave. Bier and her co-screenwriter, Anders Thomas Jensen, have a point to make – good triumphs in the end – and they shamelessly manipulate their characters in order to convince us this is indeed so.
The scenario is set up as two parallel stories that intersect. The first is about Anton (well played by Mikael Persbrandt), a physician in Africa separated from his wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who is back in Denmark. Anton is working in a Kenyan field hospital strewn with victims of the brutal local warlord, "Big Man" (Evans Muthini). Back home, Anton's lonely eldest son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is being harassed by the class bully – an all-too-obvious schoolyard variation on Big Man.
The second story involves Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), the new kid at Elias's school. Christian and his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), with whom he has a highly fraught relationship, are newly arrived from London following their wife and mother's death from cancer. Both are broken up with grief, but Christian's takes the form of red-hot anger. He bonds with Elias and dismantles the bully, clubbing him repeatedly and threatening to cut his throat (although the knife is subsequently hidden from the authorities). For this action, Christian receives a not altogether stern official reprimand, as opposed to, say, a one-way ticket to reform school. I guess they do things differently in Denmark.
When Anton returns home from Kenya for one of his periodic visits, he tries to patch things up with Elias, not to mention his wife. On an outing together, with Christian also present, Anton is bullied by a boorish mechanic (Kim Bodnia) and, to Christian's horror, does not fight back. Anton is no coward – he later confronts the man in the boys' presence, but only to demonstrate to them that violence does not solve anything.
Christian, however, isn't buying this, and he suckers Elias into a revenge plot against the mechanic involving pipe bombs.
"In a Better World" is diagrammatic in the worst way. The parallelism between the two sets of wayward fathers and their troubled sons, between the schoolyard bully and Big Man, between Big Man and the mechanic – and so on – is way too neat. The point, I suppose, is to show how violence deranges our good sense. Anton, for example, may be a quasi-pacifist but, in the film's strongest scene, he stands aside when the Africans get their opportunity to dismember the hated Big Man.
But life lessons work best in movies – as in life – when the lessons occur in a recognizable world. Bier's morality play sets up a series of situations that converge, against all human logic or illogic, in redemption. Christian, by any measure, is supremely troubled – and dangerous. And yet his actions, whatever the grief they issue from, are readily glossed over in order to provide a winning fade-out.
The entire movie is constructed in this way. That warlord's bloody demise, to take another example, happens without the slightest hint of lurking retribution. I could go on.
It is not the redemptive uplift that I am objecting to here. It's the way that Bier manipulates us in order to send us aloft. She wants the world to be a better place. Fine. But what she has concocted here is an arty version of the same old Hollywood dumb-down dramaturgy. It just has a higher gloss. Grade: C- (Rated R for violent and disturbing content, some involving preteens, and for language.)