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In a Better World

William Johnk Nielsen and Trine Dyrholm in In a Better World.

The Bad Seedling?

In a Better World

The Danish director Suzanne Bier has something of a penchant for moral extremity. In her last film, Brothers, an upright Danish army officer in Afghanistan is forced to commit an unspeakably horrible act in order to survive, and in his unhinged, guilt-burdened state is shipped home to his unsuspecting family.

Nothing as horrific occurs on camera in her Oscar-winning (for best foreign language film) In a Better World, although we’re told of terrifying brutalities committed by one of the film’s more peripheral characters, an African warlord. More central to her apparent theme is the violence that develops far from Africa at the hands of two unlikely perpetrators: two bright but troubled 12-year-old boys from good families. Their individual resentments and anxieties coalesce in a joint criminal enterprise that tips them both into a perilous situation.

Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) has just returned from abroad to Denmark with his recently widowed father. He is deposited at his grandmother’s and a new school by his frequently absent parent. On his first school day, he encounters Elias (Markus Rygaard), a diffident, eager-to-please boy who’s been bullied by a larger, older kid and his retinue. The unsuspecting, self-contained Christian befriends the other boy and when he witnesses the persecution, savagely attacks the tormenter with a bicycle pump, sending him to the hospital. Curiously, Christian seems to be subject to no serious consequences. His father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) picks him up at the police station and tries to remonstrate with him, asking him to consider what kind of world we’d have if everyone sought such revenge.

Similarly, Elias’ father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), is conciliatory when he and his estranged wife (Trine Dyrholm) visit the school about their son’s plight and are met with a response of well-intentioned, soft-pedaling of the problem. Elias’ mother berates the educators about the “sociopath” in their school, but Anton tries to smooth things down. Anton is a physician who splits his time between Denmark and the medical mission somewhere in Africa where he tends to the locals and learns of the warlord’s barbarisms, leading to another challenge to his conscience and courage.

As Bier sets all this up, the adults’ failures of judgment—particularly the men’s— leads the boys to plan a counter attack of their own. But just what Bier is trying to convey remains murky. Christian broods over what he regards as his father’s lack of commitment to his late mother. Is this an Oedipal causal factor? Bier doesn’t go very far with this. Is she trying to suggest that the ineffectuality of liberal humanism is at fault? This is at odds with the warm, hopeful relief she offers in her neat, if melodramatic resolution.

In a Better World resembles a TV Afterschool Special with brutality added. Bier seems to be stacking the deck, but against or for what is lost in this muddled film.

Watch the trailer for In a Better World

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