SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | April 3, 2011
Director: Susanne Bier
Writer: Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring: Mikael Persbrandt, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Odiege Matthew
Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier’s (Brothers, After the Wedding) seemingly apolitical diatribe on the cycle of violence and retribution in our post 9/11 society (a narrative trope that seems to be becoming increasingly prevalent nowadays) took home the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year Oscar at the 83rd Academy Awards, and after viewing In a Better World at SXSW 2011, I can see why…
Christian’s (William Jøhnk Nielsen) mother recently died after losing a battle with cancer. After the funeral, Christian relocates with his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), from England to Denmark. Christian detests quitters and he believes that his father quit caring about his mother thus causing her death. Christian’s deeply suppressed grief begins to reach its boiling point when he notices a bully picking on Elias (Markus Rygaard), a meek and scrawny boy at school. (The bully, whose abuse is tinged with anti-Swedish bigotry, says Elias’ sharp facial features makes him resemble a rat.) Christian does not like bullies and despite his young age he has already established a philosophy about how to deal with them: hit them hard enough the first time and they will never bully you again. It does not help matters that Claus is clueless — primarily because he spends a majority of the film absent from the screen and from Christian’s life.
Christian’s coldly rational and self-justifying propensity for violence plays in opposition to the pacifist philosophy of Elias’ father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt). Anton, a humanitarian doctor in an unnamed African country, is confronted daily with ethical dilemmas concerning a brutish local warlord — Big Man (Odiege Matthew) — who enjoys slicing and dicing the young women of the village. Facing the unconscionably primitive violence of Africa with a near-comical stoicism, Anton even steps up to provide medical treatment for Big Man, much to the dismay of his clinic’s staff and local villagers.
During a visit home to Denmark, Anton gets bitch-slapped by an adult bully — at a playground, no less — in front of Elias and Christian. Anton shrugs off the situation, playing it cool in front of Elias and Christian. Little does he know, the boys are embarrassed of his pacifism. We all know what Christian thinks about bullies (and it seems he has convinced the incredibly malleable Elias to think exactly as he does), he is convinced that Elias’ father should have challenged the bully to a fight. In a feeble attempt to teach Elias and Christian that turning the other cheek is not wussy, Anton and the boys visit the bully at his place of business. Anton accepts a few more bitch-slaps from the brute, thinking that this will successfully prove that the bully is just a big dumb jerk; but the boys determine that Elias’ father is a big dumb pansy.
So what do the boys do? Christian and a somewhat reluctant Elias decide to take revenge on the aged bully on their own (this after they were just recently scolded for a violent attack on the adolescent bully). Thanks to some instructions downloaded by Christian from the Internet, the boys build a few pipe bombs with gunpowder from discarded fireworks…and we all know that nothing good will come of this.
Anton and Elias’ respective bullies in Denmark, Anton’s failing marriage with Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and the situation with Big Man in Africa, causes Anton’s sublime sense of control and impeccably peaceful demeanor to shatter. Anton’s pacifism is represented by Bier as shameless moral vanity, while his ideals of justice and nonviolence are proven to be not only illogical, but unsuccessful as well. (Violent revenge, however, is not punished — other than the physical trauma endured by Elias). Anton essentially handles the African and Danish town bullies identically — refusing to inflict violence against them with his own hands, leaving others to do the dirty work — so comparing the two scenarios sadly provides no additional insight into his character.
The placement of Anton in Africa is not merely a tactic for Bier to offer a stark visual contrast between the warm African golds with cold Danish blues and greens; Bier does this in order to pit the irrationally idyllic values of the affluent/liberal/white western world against the uncivilized mayhem in the poor/tribal/black third world. Bier offers a menagerie of patronizing caricatures of Denmark’s woefully naive upper class and their spoiled kids, as well as of bullies (all three of whom appear to be culled directly from Hollywood stereotypes).
Despite impressive acting performances all around and beautiful cinematography (Morten Søborg ), Bier’s confounding attempt to remain neutral in the discussion of certain moral issues (bullying, revenge, violence, parenting, etc.) ends up muddling the film’s plot and purpose. Additionally, there is absolutely no sense of realism for the audience to latch on to; every aspect of the narrative (absentee parents, dangerous information on the Internet, the Hippocratic oath, marital infidelity, masculinity, pacifism and the hunger for revenge) is handled as heavy-handedly and purposefully as the naming of the character Christian.