[In A BetterWorld
Directed by Susanne Bier
Starring: Mikael Persbandt, Trine Dyrholm, and Markus Rygaard
MPAA: R – For violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language]
While everyone was expecting Biutiful to win the Best Foreign Language Academy Award last year, no one was expecting Susanne Bier’s In A Better World to take the top spot. Even stranger was the fact that after it won, it wasn’t officially released in America on DVD for months…until now.
Last Tuesday, it was finally available to rent, and the question remains: Did it deserve that foreign film Oscar? Short answer: No. Long answer: Yeah it’s a good movie, but nowhere near as good as some of the other nominees.
In A Better World is a Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, which I will admit, I’ve never seen any of her other works. The closest I’ve seen to a Bier film was when her film Brødre was remade into the American Brothers starring Natalie Portman, Jack Gyllenhaal and Tobey Macguire, and I really liked that film.
In A Better World is the story of two children named Christian and Elias. Christian is the new kid in school who moves to Denmark after her mother dies of cancer in London, and Elias is the bullied kid who is constantly teased for his rat-like teeth. Christian is fed up with Elias’s inability to fend for himself, and decides to beat up one of the bullies for him. This blossoms into a friendship of dangerous proportions.
When Elias’s father Anton, a ridiculously goody-two-shoes Doctor who works part time in Africa, is assaulted by a douchebag auto-repair shop owner, the two of them conspire to take revenge on him by making their own bomb using old fireworks.
The film is really dark, dealing with lots of mature themes involving the loss of innocence, the nature of revenge, father-son relationships, and then infuses all of these themes with controversial elements involving the kids brutally beating up bullies and making make-shift bombs. The main problem with In A Better World actually lies in these slightly controversial elements. It works great as a coming-of-age story, and the two kids who portray Elias and Christian are great actors, but there are tons of things that don’t organically fit into the story.
It’s like getting a stuffed bear that says “I Love You!” whenever you push its plushie paw. It’s a great stuffed bear, and pushing the “I Love You!” button is cool the first few times, but when you just want to play with it, you keep accidentally pushing the button and after ten or fifteen god damn times, you can’t stand the bloody toy.
In A Better World is a great coming-of-age story that has weaker elements added into the mix to make it more unique. The children making bombs is supposed to reflect the cruelty of human nature, but it could’ve been done in a much more subtle way. Why not just have more of Elias and Christian beating up the bullies that have pissed them off? It’s much more realistic, more subtle, and it still would’ve given Susanne Bier the end-result that she wanted. But no, having the children creating make-shift bombs will give it more attention, I suppose.
You don’t always have to make your film stand out if it’s good enough. Fish Tank is a very standard coming-of-age story, but it done so remarkably well and told so honestly that you don’t need any shock elements. Though to be fair, Fish Tank does have a few disturbing scenes, but they come through naturally into the story, whereas the shock elements in here are done merely as a ploy to get the audience’s attention.
I wouldn’t call the film “offensive” in that regard, but it’s definitely not as well-done as it could’ve been.
Within that problem is the character of Christian himself. Again, he’s played really well, but it’s for naught when he’s written kind of poorly. We’re never given a full reason for why he’s as cruel and deranged as he is until later on in the story, and even then, it’s a pretty weak reason. Christian’s character is supposed to embody a certain archetype: the kind of person who can not experience empathy.
This is all well and good, except he’s written really over-the-top. The second you see him spying on the bullies you think to yourself, “Something’s wrong with that kid.” And sure enough, he beats him up, but not in the way you’d expect. He does it brutally, with a bicycle pump, and then threatens him with a knife. Take a chill pill, Christian.
Elias, on the other hand, is played remarkably well. He plays a kid who is almost the exact opposite of Christian, but still gets lost in his deranged influence. Just his smile alone has lots of character, and where Christian is over-the-top, Elias is more dimensional and sympathetic.
So yeah, I guess these little flaws can be forgiven thanks to the strength of the actors and derpy derpy doo, but there’s one main flaw that really broke the film for me. While the film’s main story involves Elias and Christian’s loss of innocence, a subplot is interwoven into the narrative that is about Elias’ father Anton going to Africa to work in a medical clinic.
If you thought the scenes with Christian weren’t subtle, you haven’t experienced anything yet. The scenes with Anton in Africa have all the subtlety of an ice-pick being hammered into your skull. Bier apparently believed that showing everything through the eyes of children wasn’t enough, so she decided to add this African subplot, which shows people who are killed in surprisingly gruesome ways. A pregnant woman is even cut up by a lunatic, and two of the twins inside her are killed. Smooth, movie. Smooth.
This wouldn’t be a problem if this was it’s own separate movie. Just like the scenes with Christian and Elias, it does have its share of effective moments, but the entire subplot as a whole feels merely decorative and unnecessary.
I love the idea of distilling tons of mature themes through the eyes of a child. It’s a viewpoint that more people need to see things through, and In A Better World has some effective scenes that explore it well. Contrasting it with the African subplot, however, cheapens this idea and takes us out of the more interesting experience with Elias and Christian.
Final Verdict: I’ll make it clear that In A Better World is not a bad movie. There are some really effective performances by talented young actors, and it deals with a lot of mature themes that I can see a lot of people really admiring. It just could’ve been split into two movies. We have two great, interesting stories that work great on their own, but together in the same movie, hamper the experience. Add that with some problems with subtlety, and you’ve got a film with noble intentions that doesn’t quite make it’s mark.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch Fish Tank again. Bye!