This surprise Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Film spotlights what a delightful haven Denmark is for children with homicidal tendencies. A young boy can beat up another with a bicycle pump, blow up vans, and punch his father in the stomach, and the youth will be completely forgiven and allowed to stay in school. And in the end, he will transform into a loving lad, of course.
Moral: Coddle the potential cutthroat in your life and he'll become a pussycat, unlike in real life where bastards become bigger bastards.
In a Better World does endeavor to be more complex than that, but its screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, who's fared much better with The King is Alive (2000), Brothers (2004), and Mifune's Last Song (1999), has shoehorned a happy ending onto all of his characters, one that clearly belongs to Pollyanna II.
The Disney-esque finale aside, what Anders is trying to explore here is how a mortal should cope in an unendingly violent society. Should he follow the advice of Matthew: "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Or should he take a stand? But doesn't retribution breed more retribution that will eventually lead to war? Or can a man of peace make a difference?
Such a man is Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor working in an African refugee camp, who's daily dealing with victims of malnutrition and violence: patients missing limbs or just slightly hacked up. But then pregnant women are suddenly being carried into his makeshift hospital on a regular basis with their stomachs slashed open. It seems a brutal local tyrant is betting on the fetuses' sex, and then has to find out the answer immediately. So what happens when this monster himself shows up needing treatment? What is Anton's moral responsibility?
Jump to Denmark where Anton's wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), from whom he's currently separated, is trying to raise their two sons. The oldest Elias (Markus Rygaard), however, is not blossoming under her care. Bullied at school daily, he also has to constantly deal with his bicycle tires being deflated. Life is hell for him until the arrival from London of a new schoolmate, Christian (Willian Johnk Nielsen).
Christian, whose mother has just died from cancer, is mad at the world and refuses to be anyone's underdog. He befriends Elias and beats off the bullies between lashing out at his own father, whom he accuses of wishing his mother's death.
Then Anton shows up on the scene and takes his two sons and Christian on a daytrip. In the midst of this outing, Anton gets punched in the face by a ruffian and refuses to punch back. He becomes a wimp in the eyes of the boys, but he tries to explain the uselessness of combating brute force with brute force. The lads won't have any of it. But then remember how upset Jim Stark (James Dean) got that his dad (Jim Backus) wore an apron at home in Rebel Without a Cause. Young males, in Western society, need a butch pa as a role model apparently.
So what is the right ethical stance to take with bullies, hooligans, and sociopaths? Apparently, it depends. There is a time for Gandhi's restraint and a time for Rommel's fierceness.
But instead of actually making you care, the film's disjointedness, clichés, and reality irregularities pull you away as much as the fine performers sometimes pull you back into the tale. One wishes Danish director Susanne Bier, who has an affinity for the overwrought and who succeeded to a greater degree with Brothers (2004) and After the Wedding (2006), had watched Truffaut's 400 Blows before commencing on this project. She might have then learned that less can be more and that a final frozen screen shot that doesn't answer every question is more forceful than a hug.
In the end, though, here are two stories that instead of complementing each other rather rub each other raw competing for screen time. In a better film, they would have left you devastated.