In a Better World is a modern parable and, like all parables out to make a moral point, is schematic in its design and awfully neat in its resolution. But since the point is debated with power, directed with purpose and acted with panache, we're drawn deeply into the tale and, ultimately, left to make a choice: whether to applaud the film's dramatic punch or pan its over-tidy manner. Some might find the choice hard, but Oscar sure didn't - last February, it judged the movie the best of the foreign-language crop. Of course, Oscar has always been a big fan of neat-and-tidy.
The Danish title, Haevnen, translates as "revenge," which more broadly hints at the debate being waged here. Really, it's the old cycle-of-violence conundrum, and the classic questions that arise from it. Does violence always beget violence? If so, is sustained goodness ever a sufficient force to end the cycle? If not, does the counter-violence waged against evil inevitably pollute the goodness it's meant to preserve? This dilemma may be as old as man, but give director Susanne Bier full marks: Her encasing parable is brand new and immediately provocative.
It starts in Africa, where goodness is personified in the saintly form of Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Western doctor treating the locals for the illnesses of poverty and the wounds of war. Among the latter patients are a succession of pregnant women, attacked for the usual senseless reasons by a bellicose thug known only as the Big Man. Paint him pure evil, and expect him to show up at the clinic gravely wounded himself, leaving Anton in, yes, a clear moral quandary.
But this is the Third World. Maybe the First, where the doctor makes his home, is a better world? Cut to a schoolyard in Denmark, and the answer isn't long in coming: It's different in degree, but not in kind. There, Anton's buck-toothed son, Elias, is the victim of constant bullying by the proverbial tough kid. The school administrators, a typical crowd of ineffectual liberals, are superb at condemning violence yet useless at stopping it. But Christian does. A troubled boy, left angry and sullen after his mother's recent death from cancer, he befriends Elias and then, in a sequence of startling intensity, beats the bully to a pulp with a bicycle pump. His act of revenge is more than sweet - it's bloody effective.
Meanwhile, returning home for a visit, Anton is attempting to reconcile with his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm). Apparently, in Africa, his halo slipped and he had an affair. Marianne remains unforgiving. On a second domestic front, Christian is emotionally separated from his widowed father, and is plotting to escalate the violence that worked so well the first time. He finds some fireworks in the garage and advice in pipe-bomb construction on the internet. Finding another bully is an easier matter - they're never in short supply.
Africa, Denmark, good, evil, knee-jerk liberals, trigger-happy goons, marital discord, bereaved widows, juvenile angst - the narrative is definitely busy, but you can see how the parable demands it. For her part, Bier adroitly juggles the story's many tangents while still keeping her eye on the central quest - the search for a door that opens onto that better world. So, one by one, the possible entries are examined. Religion used to offer an ascent to a more exalted place, but, judging from the deceased mother's funeral, any faith in that portal is long gone. Modernity held out the promise of moral progression and greater civility; yet again, on the evidence here, the beast within has yet to be tamed, the Big Man is just as lethal in a suit and tie. Moving to personal relations, the door of divorce is an option but hardly a panacea - Anton and Marianne are no happier apart than together.
It's a mess all right, and a definite breeding ground for violence. In an earlier film, Brothers, Bier set up a similar contrast - between the apparently good soldier and his seemingly bad brother - in order to show that ethics are situational, and that our essential character is subject to change in changing circumstances.
There, the contrast was credibly dramatized and beautifully performed. The same is true here but, this time, the thematic queries are bigger and so is the moral quagmire. Consequently, depending on your perspective, the tidy resolution will come as a vast relief or a major disappointment. Either way, just when no world looks better, when all the doors are closed, one opens, and the only question left is how it should be labelled. Oscar chose "Uplifting." Me, I'm afraid it's "Wishful Thinking."
In a Better World
- Directed by Susanne Bier
- Written by Anders Thomas Jensen
- Starring Mikael Persbrandt and Trine Dyrholm
- Classification: 14A