Our own Aaron Cutler was on to something when he called In a Better World “the sort of movie that wins the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.” The antithesis of Claire Denis’s phantasmagoric White Material, in which the fantasy of colonialism is brought shakingly to its knees via an armed uprising, Susanne Bier’s latest feels like the work of a deluded colonialist. Shooting in that amorphous, terse style that she hasn’t been able to shake since making her last Dogme film, Bier begins her story as a chic doctors-without-borders melodrama in the Africa of Ridley Scott, Fernando Meirelles, and Edward Zwick’s fallacious imaginations. After tossing a soccer ball to a throng of hummer-chasing children, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) tends to the wounds of their mothers and sisters—and from the gruesome gashes on pregnant bellies to the rotted teeth that barely hang from black-as-coal faces, Bier invites us to cluck our tongues at the horrors afflicting this Kenyan populace before hopscotching to Denmark, after a brief detour in London, to make a muddled, unfortunate point about how our world isn’t exactly that much better than theirs.
Without its patronizing third-world sequences, In a Better World would have only been a somber, self-serious film about the ethics of violence; with them, it becomes a politically arrogant one. In Denmark, Anton’s weakling of a son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), finds himself living on the edge—sometimes literally so—after befriending Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen), the London expat whose rage against his father (Ulrich Thomsen) over the cancer-related death of his mother is beginning to manifest itself in flashes of psychopathic violence. First the kid—armed with a bicycle pump and a knife—nearly blinds the school bully that torments Elias on a daily basis, then sets his explosive sights on an alpha-dog schlub of a mechanic who slaps (not once, but several times, in two separate scenes no less) the hilariously pacifist Anton, back from Kenya, for simply and chivalrously breaking up a fight between the goon’s son and Elias’s little bro.
Like After the Wedding, which also began in the far reaches of the third world, In a Better World’s grace notes are small ones, as in a scene in which a mother’s lie, delivered in a fit of grotesquely pained anger, practically leads to another character’s death—but such notes are few and far between. Yes, Bier can be a keen, sensitive observer of familial strife, but she has a habit of shoehorning geopolitical noise into her already busy soap operas of human misery, and in a manner that feels as desperate as her coolly purple artistry (there isn’t much that separates this film’s drearily photogenic parallels between first- and third-world vistas with After the Wedding’s absurd juxtaposition of human faces with taxidermied animals).
Exuding the feeling of a crazy man walking around in circles, talking to himself about the woes of humanity, In a Better World asks a lot of little questions about masculinity and the hunger for violence, none of them particularly profound or interesting, in part because of Bier’s willingness to readily resolve everyone’s problems. The film becomes tacky whenever this conversation plays out in the deserts of Kenya (shot, like its people, as if it were alien), where unfortunate and useless contrasts are made between the dubiously idyllic values of the first world and the unchecked violence of the uncivilized third. First Christian’s violent behavior is paralleled with that of the sniveling one-eyed warlord who orchestrates the murder of unborn females, then Anton’s Gandhi-esque adherence to a philosophy of nonviolent resistance is put to the test in a heavy-handed, histrionically scored scene capped by a fatuously serene shot of a darling sandstorm gently darting across a desert plain—an aesthetic punctuation mark that suggests Anton’s belief system was always in need of a stress-releasing colonic. White material, indeed.