In a Better World -
It’d be more fun if you had the car to go with the remote.

Theatrical Release Date: 04/08/2011
Director: Susanne Bier
Cast: William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen, Markus Rygaard, Mikael Persbrandt, Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Dyrholm, Kim Bodnia
Rated: R for violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language. 
Runtime: 1 hour, 53 minutes


Who says we’re having problems?

Winner of this year’s Best Foreign Language Academy Award, “In a Better World” comes from writer/director Susanne Bier. The original Danish title is “Hævnen”, which translates to “revenge”. Marketing it in America with the adjusted moniker adds a great expectation of hope not usually found on the surface of Bier’s films but the truth in its tone lies between the two titles.

I appreciate her work for how she handles complex and intimate relationships so well; shading people with grey, rather than strict black or white in order to nicely fit into a formulaic screenwriting paradigm. The same is true here but rather than focusing on adults, the film keys in on two adolescent kids: Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard).

Christian is coping with the death of his mother rather poorly, bottling up his anger and eager to act out using a flexible sense of morality in order to justify his actions. Elias is a sweet and kind kid being bullied mercilessly at school, with no friends to speak of.

New to the school, Christian immediately steps in to help out Elias. Faced with the prospect of having a real friend, Elias is eager to please Christian – even as he begins to spiral into darker and darker territory in his quest to come to grips with his mother’s death and his perception of how his father dealt with it.

As the pair of them commit more and more daring acts, the parallels between the way in which children and adults handle shows of force are explored and we are also exposed to how the adults in their lives try to impose a more “civilized” code of conduct – all while the world around them continues to utilize the theory that ‘might makes right’.

Like with her 2007 film, “After the Wedding“, Bier tackles not only the personal issues within a small subset of people but also showcases the need for humanitarian efforts globally. This time around, it’s the plight of African refugees being terrorized by a local warlord who takes a perverse pleasure in slicing open pregnant women to see if he guessed the gender of the unborn child correctly. Elias’ father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), is a doctor who commutes between Denmark and the camp, trying to help the sick and injured there while also dealing with a strained marriage and trying to remain a good role model for his children.

I would normally knock a film for having so split a focus but Bier manages to blend all of these stories into one grand narrative. It’s by knowing so many different aspects of the dynamics between the characters that we come to factor in the intentions as well as the consequences of their actions.

One thing fans of Bier can rely on is a familiar cast and crew from her previous works. This is the third collaboration with actor Ulrich Thomsen, fourth for screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen and cinematographer Morten Søborg, eighth with composer Johan Söderqvist, and the ninth for editor Pernille Bech Christensen. This continuity gives her work a consistency and having key personnel already familiar with a director’s style and decision making process allows Bier to focus on getting the best out of the actors, which was the case with this film.

The worst I can really say about the film is that I didn’t connect to the characters or story like I have done with most of her other work (many of which ranks near the top for personal favorites). Much of that is because rather than being about the normal dysfunctionality in adult relationships, the main focus here is on these kids. If I were a parent, perhaps certain elements would have had a greater impact. Still, Bier continues to deliver the right tone and mood for my tastes and I’m giving “In a Better World” a 4 out of 5.

4 out of 5