In a Better World (2011)

Drama Rated R

In a Better World focuses on a perennial theme: the intractable nature of violence. What’s unique is the way the movie takes both a macro and a micro view of the subject.

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Danish surgeon who tries to solve the world’s problems by occasionally flying off to a war-torn corner of Africa to provide care at a refugee camp. In the meantime, he’s absent for much of the strife occurring in his own home: the anguish of his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and the nervousness of his 10-year-old son Elias (Markus Rygaard), who is being mercilessly bullied at school.

Help for Elias appears to come from Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), a new boy at school who is coping with the recent death of his mother by becoming a pint-sized vigilante. After standing up for Elias in a shocking act of violence, Christian then sets his sights on the adult bully who slaps Anton, Elias’ father, at the park after a misunderstanding. Anton later tries to rationalize with the man to prove to Elias and Christian that violence isn’t the answer, but the lesson is lost on the boys, who are living in the Lord of the Flies trenches.

Nielsen gives a harrowing performance as Christian, allowing a sea of anger and contempt to roil under his fresh-faced surface. And Rygaard, as Elias, is heartbreaking; all nervous blinks and easy-to-please grins, he has the tragic face of a victim. In many ways, these two child performances are the emotional lynchpin of the movie.

The lesson of nonviolence is lost on the boys, who are living in the Lord of the Flies trenches.

Do screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen and director Susanne Bier stretch the bully metaphor too much by cutting back and forth between Denmark and Africa, where Anton comes face to face with the warlord who is mutilating pregnant women in a nearby village? It’s a tricky conceit, fraught with cross-cultural pitfalls, but I think it mostly works. Enough care is given to allow the Africans’ own stories to resonate, so that their plight registers as more than a thematic device. What’s more, this narrative structure puts humanity on a level playing field: the same impulses that drive the warlord also drive the school bully’s quest for power. And perhaps they also drive Christian’s hunger for justice/revenge.

The global quality of In a Better World is also nicely echoed by some of Biers’ camera choices. She has a perceptive eye for the expansiveness of widescreen landscapes, and finds striking visual parallels between the rugged vistas of dusty Africa and Denmark’s seaside shores. There are also occasional moments in which there is a cut from a wide landscape shot to a close-up of the nearby ground, so that a mountain is suddenly exchanged for the pebbles that sit at its foot. It’s a nice micro/macro allusion, a reminder that the horrors we hear from across the world are often also lurking within our own hearts.