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With: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Nielsen, Bodil Jorgensen, Elsebeth Steentoft, Martin Buch, Anette Stovlebaek, Kim Bodnia, Evans Muthini
Written by: Anders Thomas Jensen
Directed by: Susanne Bier
MPAA Rating: R for violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language
Language: Danish, Swedish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 119
Date: 08/26/2010
IMDB

In a Better World (2010)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Better' and Worse

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's impossible to watch Susanne Bier's In a Better World without thinking about the fact that it won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Half of the viewers won't bother to question the Academy's wisdom: it must be a good movie, right? The other half will ask, "That's it?"

I'm firmly in the latter camp, and I have outlined most of my outrage in a blog I wrote last year about the profoundly broken Foreign Language category. It continues to be broken, as this tepid, lamebrained choice proves. Just briefly, let me add that In a Better World was Denmark's official submission, as per the Academy's rules. Each country is allowed only one submission per year, and any film that is produced in more than one country is disqualified. But let me ask this: if a film is the official selection of a country's government, are they going to choose something daring and personal and artistic, and possibly even dangerous, or are they going to choose something that safely represents the "best interests" of a nation?

And so it goes. In addition to being safe and non-threatening, Bier's film finds time to throw in mentions of cancer and divorce, and images of poor children starving in Africa. It's pretty much a recipe for an Oscar. As for the filmmaking itself, it's the most pedestrian stuff I've seen in a while. The characters don't seem to have even the most basic common sense, and any audience member that has seen more than a few movies will be two jumps ahead of them at any given moment.

The movie ostensibly explores the nature of bullying and violence without going very deep. Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) is the new kid in a rural Denmark school, having just moved from London with his emotionally distraught father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen); Christian's mother is the one that has recently died from cancer. At school, Christian immediately crosses paths with Elias (Markus Rygaard), whose braces make his teeth protrude like a rat's; the school's bully calls him "rat face" and deflates his bicycle tires daily.

We also meet Elias' parents. His father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor who regularly travels to Kenya to help poor villagers. His mother Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) is sad, pretty blond doctor who remains in Denmark; the couple is separated, and the good-natured Anton keeps trying to reconcile with her.

OK, so at school, Christian beats the crap out of the bully and forever rescues Elias from tyranny. Christian understands that if you hit hard enough, just once, the bullying will stop. Later, Anton has the two boys and his younger son out for ice cream. After a mild playground scrape with another boy, a grown-up bully begins slapping Anton around, but Anton does nothing. Christian burns with the injustice of this situation and plots a big-time revenge against the older bully.

However, in Kenya, Anton is faced with another bully, a local thug that enjoys raping and killing the locals. This time he defends himself admirably. At home, Christian's revenge turns violent and people are hurt. So what is Bier up to here? It's OK to stand up to bullies, but only at the right time and place? Or maybe only in a third world country, where one doesn't risk going to jail?

I have no idea, but what I did notice is that Bier's flimsy filmmaking consists solely of driving the plot forward. Then she resorts to one of my biggest pet peeves, which is that if a scene starts innocuously, then it means she has a "surprise" in store. That the characters don't know these surprises are coming when it's crushingly obvious to the viewer makes them seem slow and dim-witted.

Regardless of any half-baked themes about bullying and violence, I think that Bier is most moved by her images of the children in Kenya. She stops to show little montages of them from time to time, or slow-motion shots of them running after cars. Ultimately it all adds up to not much, and In a Better World seems destined for the same obscure, forgotten junk heap that many other Foreign Language Film Oscar winners have wound up in.

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