Rear View
By Matt Connolly

In a Better World
Dir. Susanne Bier, Denmark/Sweden, Sony Pictures Classics

You’ll know the image when you see it. We’re in an impoverished Third Word desert (the geographic specifics rarely register with much force), positioned on the back of a pickup truck or some other vehicular vantage point by which to observe the foreign landscape around us. The camera comes to rest just behind the automobile, where a large group of little black children have begun to run after the car. They shout and wave as they sprint after us, their guileless gesticulations slowly fading into the dusty distance as we speed away. How innocent they look as they scamper about behind us, so enlivened to be chasing after something so rudimentary to our (presumably First World) eyes! And how poignant for us, to see their cherubic faces alight with excitement right as we exit their assuredly dark and difficult lives! Childlike wonder and privileged guilt all swirled into one trailer-ready moment: how complicated it all is!

If its latte-liberal sigh of a title didn’t immediately clue you in, In a Better World prominently displays such an image early on, situating its tale of cross-border woe within a dubious vein of moist-eyed cinematic condescension—one that has plagued the art-house for generations but has come to the forefront in recent years thanks to such “socially conscious” auteurs as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Paul Haggis. Director Susanne Bier doesn’t scoop through the sociopolitical muck with as much covert relish as, say, Iñárritu’s Babel (whose “passion of the Mexican maid” sections stand as some kind of leering low point in the current vogue of globalized misery porn), but she shares its penchant for constructing representative tableaus over on-the-ground narrative scenarios. Scenes of conflict cannot merely explore the interpersonal dynamics of those characters on screen. They must expand out into capital-S Symbols of the underlying moral/spiritual forces that plague contemporary existence. A thrown punch or hurled epithet is never just itself in a film like In a Better World, but the key to understanding What Is Wrong with the World Today™.

This is particularly dispiriting, given that Bier’s previous forays into current events relevance-mongering contained some semblance of self-awareness, or at least the good sense to keep the focus mostly on the travails of her well-off Danish protagonists. Like In a Better World, her 2006 feature After the Wedding followed a white European man whose work in a poverty-plagued nation is juxtaposed with the interpersonal melodrama he encounters upon returning home. That earlier film wasn’t nuanced in its depiction of a privileged, well-intentioned outsider entering a foreign space, but it offered the possibility that the wants of said outsider might not align perfectly with the needs of the community he purports to serve. Such an acknowledgment is not to be found throughout In a Better World, in which Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen clumsily link the tensions bubbling beneath the idyllic surface of a rural Denmark town with the systemic violence and poverty seen in a Kenyan refugee camp. There, ruggedly handsome Danish doctor Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) tends to the locals, notably a group of pregnant women whose stomachs have been slashed by a sadistic local tyrant known as Big Man (Odiege Matthew). Return trips home come with their own complications. He and wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) have separated and are mulling divorce, while ten-year-old son Elias (Markus Rygaard) has become the target of school bullies. Elias seems to find an ally in brooding new student Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), a London transplant who moves to the town with father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) after his mother dies of cancer. Christian helps Elias by pulling a knife on a particularly vicious tormentor, an act which both cements their friendship and offers a glimpse into Christian’s mind—this forceful response to aggressors will resurface when he, Elias, and Anton are accosted by a bilious car mechanic.

There’s a lot going on here (we haven’t even gotten to Christian’s pent-up rage at his father for “letting” mom die), though In a Better World doesn’t suffer from subplot overload in the way you might think. Bier’s films teem with melodramatic incident: Open Hearts’ torrid affair between the girlfriend of a paraplegic and the husband of the woman who paralyzed said paraplegic; or the mélange of terminal illness and long-lost-father reunions that pile up throughout After the Wedding. Yet if her movies sound overstuffed on paper, they are unexpectedly muted affairs onscreen. Her characters must frequently contend with disease, heartbreak, and death, but their ultimate rewards are small-scale revelations and reconciliations rather than bombastic triumphs or tragedies. Bier is particularly adept at setting up potential romantic triangles or chaotic love stories, only to shift the focus towards the messier emotions underpinning the would-be couplings. Brothers seems to be setting up a romance between a soldier’s widow (or so it appears) and his sibling, only to swerve towards a study of the PTSD-afflicted soldier himself. Things We Lost in the Fire similarly moves away from post-tragedy pairing to the more amorphous bonds that form between two wary, damaged people—in this case, a widow and her husband’s drug-addicted childhood friend. In a Better World occasionally shows signs that Bier’s instincts for deflating histrionic material hasn’t completely abandoned her: as when rueful conversations between Anton and Marianne play out against a dusk-covered lakeside, the crepuscular vista gently mirroring their indeterminate marital status. Her visual style—a Dogme-inflected mixture of shaky-cam tracks and impressionistic cutaways—can sometimes feel fussy and thematically simplistic (pensive close-up + shot of leaves = depth), but moments like this reveal that she can be a sensitive, emotionally attuned chronicler of hurting souls in transition.

But these minor-key pleasures get largely swept away by In a Better World’s ungainly button pushing and distasteful thematic maneuvers. The aforementioned encounter with that auto mechanic throws up the first major red flag, as the upper-middle-class Anton tries to soundly reason with this loutish brute, to no avail. Christian sneers at Anton’s turn-the-other-cheek pacifism, and enlists Elias in a plot to blow up the man’s truck via a homemade bomb. One doesn’t have to think too hard to imagine how a scenario involving two sweet-faced (but inwardly tortured!) kids building an explosive device opens the floodgates for all sorts of bald-faced emotional manipulations. Still, these scenes wouldn’t be half as eye-roll-inducing if the film didn’t couch Christian and Elias’s quest in a plodding faux-sociology lesson about polite society’s hidden heart of darkness. In a Better World doesn’t promote Christian’s homegrown terrorism (duh); but, in an equally boneheaded move, it frames his actions as the extreme logical endpoint of the civilized world’s inability to contend with the roiling aggression within (the innocent must suffer for the sins of well-meaning but hopelessly confused adults, etc. . . . )

The truly galling move, however, occurs when Anton returns to Kenya. Ruminating over his inability to effectively stand up to the mechanic’s bullying (ah, modern masculinity), Anton finds that pregnant women have continued to be brutalized by Big Man, who is eventually brought to the camp for medical assistance. With his corpulent build (underlined by grotesque close-ups of his maggot-infested injured leg) and villainous cackle, Big Man is a black-hearted monster, thrown into the mix to test the limits of Anton’s principled nonviolence. The more you consider the situation Bier and company set up here, the more the offenses pile up: the unthinking idiocy implied by the film’s connection between the working-class loud-mouth mechanic and the atrocious mutilator of women as two “bullies”; the framing of the Third World as a space for a privileged Caucasian male to work out his residual inadequacies from his “real life” back home. I won’t spoil the subplot’s conclusion, though it was illuminating to discover that one really can have the moral high ground and be a macho man too, provided that one’s opponent is as vile a stereotype of “African savagery” as one could imagine.

In the end, In a Better World is not going to risk actually troubling our consciences about how the world around us operates. (You don’t win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film by leaving those pesky loose ends flapping in the breeze!) The film’s risible denouement offers up the usual platitudes about healing, love, and the transformative power of understanding, which makes it all the more laughable when we find ourselves shuttled back to Kenya one more time. In a Better World offers no real insight into the very real issues plaguing the region, and given the film’s ultimate message—violence begets violence, so we, like, really need to stop that—it doesn’t need to. What we see is not a better world, but one completely reduced to salve our guilt and uncertainty, while offering just a hint of ambivalence so we don’t feel like complete head-in-the-sand morons. We end where we begin, with black children laughing and running, close enough to smile at pitifully but quickly vanishing from our sight line. And let’s face it: that’s exactly where a movie like In a Better World wants them to be.