In A Better World

Sometimes a talented filmmaker will create a work that’s passionate and well crafted even though it’s clearly flawed, and as a consequence, viewers are forced to ask themselves if the film’s virtues outweigh its flaws, or if the weaknesses fatally compromise the picture. Susanne Bier’s latest film, Haevnen (aka In a Better World), is unfortunately...read more

Reviewed by Mark Deming
Rating:

Sometimes a talented filmmaker will create a work that’s passionate and well crafted even though it’s clearly flawed, and as a consequence, viewers are forced to ask themselves if the film’s virtues outweigh its flaws, or if the weaknesses fatally compromise the picture. Susanne Bier’s latest film, Haevnen (aka In a Better World), is unfortunately one such movie; it’s a well-made film with some strong performances, and Bier is clearly trying to address the issues of violence, revenge, and their many consequences in contemporary culture in a thoughtful manner. But for every moment that it’s as intelligent and challenging as intended, there’s another where the picture simply misses its mark and plays like a contemporary update of The Bad Seed.

In a Better World primarily focuses on the relationship between two ten-year-old boys, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard). Christian is the new kid at school; his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), has recently moved the family back to Denmark after the death of his wife following a long, traumatic bout with cancer in London. Christian is a tightly wound, often-angry youngster who quickly befriends Elias, a scrawny, buck-toothed boy who is a frequent target for vicious bullies at school. Elias is also struggling with family problems; his mother, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), and father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), are separated and planning to divorce, while Anton is often out of the country working with a medical mission in Africa. When Christian runs afoul of a bully while defending Elias, the next day he responds with vehement force, beating the larger boy with a tire pump and holding a knife to his throat. A grateful Elias helps Christian hide the knife and they manage to avoid expulsion from school, but as the two become close friends, Elias becomes conscious of Christian’s bitter streak, paranoia, and taste for violence. When a misunderstanding in the park leads to a scuffle between Anton and an angry auto repairman, Christian decides he and Elias need to punish the mechanic, leading to a shocking act of revenge with serious consequences. Meanwhile, as Elias is pondering the nature of violence and justice, Anton is facing his own dilemma in Kenya; a local guerilla leader known only as Big Man (Evans Muthini) is responsible for a number of horrific assaults on pregnant women, and Anton’s personal ethics are put to a troubling test when Big Man himself shows up with a badly infected leg, demanding treatment as his underlings brandish weapons.

The biggest problem with In a Better World is that director Bier (who also co-wrote the original story with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen) deals with the adults in the story far better than the children, yet it’s the children who get most of the screen time. When the film focuses on Anton and Marianne’s failing marriage and the physical, emotional, and ethical toll of Anton’s work in Kenya, Bier handles the material with a sure hand and the actors are in fine form (enough so that one wishes Trine Dyrholm was given a bit more to do as Marianne). However, the movie loses its grip when dealing with Elias and Christian; neither Markus Rygaard or William Johnk Nielsen bring the right amount of nuance to what are admittedly difficult roles, and Christian’s fondness for weapons, enthusiasm for violent video games, and barely controlled anger quickly turn one of the film’s key characters into a cliche of a youngster on the verge of an emotional meltdown. It’s also a bit hard to swallow what happens with the boys in the film’s last act, and the many missteps in the handling of the kids’ story rob the film of much of the emotional power that comes from the fine acting and capable handling of the grown-up characters. It’s hard not to imagine that In a Better World’s African subplot could have made for a satisfying film all by itself; as it is, it represents one of the most impressive parts of a movie that’s smart and emotionally powerful without being genuinely effective. Bier has brought far too many good things to In a Better World to dismiss it, but it also has too many weak spots for anyone to ignore; it’s a frustrating partial misfire from a gifted director who clearly has something worthwhile to say here, even if the message gets muddled in the telling.

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