“IN A BETTER WORLD” – 4 STARS

“In a Better World” is a Danish film from director Susanne Bier and the surprise Oscar winner for 2010′s Best Foreign Language Film. It’s a provocative and multi-layered picture that delves into such weighty subjects as bullying, divorce, the death of a parent, suicide, and even murder and violence in Sudan. It touches on many of these subjects with care and savvy but this is also where the film seems to lose it’s identity. It’s hard to tell what ”In a Better World” wants to be.

Mikael Persbrandt plays Anton, a Swedish doctor and father of two who has recently separated from his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm). Anton spends a lot of time away from home working at a refugee camp in Sudan. Here he treats all sorts of injuries, many inflicted by a ruthless local war lord. At home his son Elias (Markus Rygaard)  has been the victim of incessant bullying from a bigger kid at school. Upon witnessing Elias being ridiculed by the bully, a new student named Christian (William Juels Nielsen) intervenes kindling a new friendship with Elias. But Christian has problems of his own. He’s a disturbed and disconnected boy who is still unable to come to terms with his mother’s recent death due to cancer. Christian’s anger grows and grows despite the efforts of his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen).

As I mentioned, “In a Better World” touches on a lot of themes but the film lacks a main focus. It’s most certainly a movie about bullying. It’s also a movie about the impact losing a parent has on a child and a film about the friendship of two struggling boys. But the word “violence” kept coming back to me. One consistent undercurrent flowing throughout the picture was violence, our propensity towards it, and our reaction to it. Whether it be the more savage and bloody violence that Anton witnessed in Sudan or the subtle and often overlooked violence in our own cozy neighborhoods, “In a Better World” presents it as something internal. The bigger question is how do we deal with it.

There’s a lot in the movie about revenge versus letting go. Anton is a passive man who would rather walk away than cause things to escalate. Christian convinces Elias this is a sign of his father’s weakness. Two different individuals reacting to violence in two very different ways. But such is violence that even Anton and his passivity fall victim to the impulse for vengeance. Everything in the film seems to be used as fuel for this one underlying theme.

While that’s what I took from the film I could be dead wrong. It just lacked the clarity needed to really impress it’s message upon me. But even though it goes into all sorts of difficult but real circumstances, it does so in a responsible and cohesive way. While several things could have used more attention, Bier makes it all flow together in a way that really kept me involved. The solid performances sold me on these characters and I genuinely cared about their situations. It’s also beautifully shot and features some polished camera work and great locations. So even with it’s flaws, I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen.

“In a Better World” isn’t the perfect film and it surprised a lot of people when it won last year’s Oscar. But this is still a thoughtful and engaging picture that had my attention throughout. It deals with some weighty subjects and does so with sometimes brutal honesty. The performances are rich and pure and even when the script falls short in spots, the actors still manage to elevate the material. “In a Better World” may not have the depth and detail that some are looking for and that’s a valid argument. But I found it to be a moving experience that not only touched me but made me think. There’s a lot of movies out there that can’t accomplish that.

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