Recipe for a Foreign Language Oscar-winner: Take the plot of an after-school special, tack on an extraneous subplot about an African refugee camp. Voila! A picture apparently superior to Dogtooth! You don’t need to be a vindictive fan of that film, the trophy’s deserved winner, to hate on In a Better World, the latest from director Susanne Bier and writer Anders Thomas Jensen (Brothers, After the Wedding).
The topic is bullying, focusing on Elias (Markus Rygaard), a weak-willed kid with bad teeth who’s a regular target for abuse. To his rescue comes new kid in town Christian (William Jøhnk Juel Nielsen). His mother having recently succumbed to cancer—for which he blames his emotionally distant father (Ulrich Thomsen)—Christian is a bit on the Macauley Culkin The Good Son side of the equation, and thus winds up dispatching Elias’ abuser with psycho-like brutality. But bullies exist in the adult world, too, as they learn when a surly mechanic humiliates Elias’ pacifist father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), causing Christian to plot a grisly revenge that will definitely not take a tragic turn. Meanwhile in Africa (!!), Anton tends to refugees while running afoul of a wounded warlord demanding medical attention.
The shameless melodramatists of the one-time Dogme wave, Bier and Jensen’s should-be-toxic brew—soap-opera plotting, but with grit—was borderline tolerable long as their digi-video cameras remained shitty. Now that video has evolved to the Red One camera, which can ably pass for gorgeous celluloid, they can no longer obscure their theatrics with dirty faux-verisimilitude.
Or maybe In a Better World simply isn’t worthy trash. Where After the Wedding was a whiplash melodrama, excessively plotted by Jensen and filmed with forward throttle by Bier, In a Better World is locked-down, staid and trite, its story slowly building to a conclusion that’s inevitable as soon as one kid mentions explosives. Not even the attempt to appeal to the Crash/Babel contingent works, with little reason for the African soujourns beyond a couple banal narrative rhymes (see, the warlord is a bully, too...). In a better world this would at least have a less self-important English-language title.
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