In a Better World
aka Hævnen
First screened in December 2018 / Reviewed in January 2019
Director: Susanne Bier. Cast: William Jøhnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard, Mikael Persbrandt, Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Drynholm, Simon Maagaard Holm, Kim Bodnia, Toke Lars Bjarke, Odiege Matthew, Wil Johnson, Bodil Jørgensen. Screenplay: Anders Thomas Jensen, with story contributions from Susanne Bier.

Twitter Capsule: Within the Olive Garden of world cinema, Susanne Bier takes the podium. Her heart bleeds, but what does she say?

VOR:   The Academy-certified "Best Foreign Language Film" of the year, and there's no compelling reason to see it! Even globe-trotting ambitions are dubious.

Photo © 2010 , © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics
The original Danish title for Susanne Bier's Oscar-winning In a Better World translates to Revenge, a fairly drastic difference not just in nomenclature but in tonal, generic, and thematic implication. Though you can't always judge a book by its confusing series of covers, in this case you'd be forgiven. The movie that hasn't decided what it's called also hasn't decided what it's about, or why, to truly startling degrees. The prologue transpires in Unnamed African Country, one of filmdom's favorite locations, where middle-aged Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) offers emergency medical care to refugees from the Unspecified African War. The sequence lasts long enough to endow this episode with some patina of latent significance, as do several intermittent returns throughout the film. Nonetheless, the core of the movie, such as it is, unfolds in faraway Denmark, where Anton's timid son Elias (Markus Rygaard) gets viciously bullied for being bucktoothed and Swedish. Truly. A new and more polished classmate, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), comes to Elias's aid to a surprising, unexpectedly violent degree, revealing a barely-concealed criminal streak beneath his altruistic veneer. The meandering, half-baked script implies that Christian's penchant for trouble has something to do with grief for his recently-deceased mother, just as it alleges that poor Elias's suffering is made worse by the recent separation of his parents and by his do-gooder father's repeated trips abroad. Perhaps, then, East African strife constitutes little more in this script than a dramatic device for keeping Elias fatherless and his mother unpartnered for more time than either can stand. Then again, there is the pesky matter of that Nonspecific Violent Warlord (the character's name in the credits is "Big Man"!) who demands treatment at Anton's clinic, endangering the doctor and outraging the other staff and patients. So I guess this plotline does matter? Then again again, nothing much comes of it, except the surging-forth of a vigilante flash-mob whose collective retribution the movie both applauds and denounces.

I don't know, you guys. The closest that In a Better World comes to cohering is around cross-generational ideas of masculine self-comportment, and competing modes of managing conflict. That theme culminates in one of the movie's most interesting or at least potentially interesting scenes, when Anton escorts the two youngsters to the workshop of a thuggish car mechanic (Kim Bodnia) who has recently abused him in public. This even-tempered father means to embody a lesson about turning the other cheek, insisting this is not a sign of weakness, which his delicate son is prepared to accept. Christian, however, rejects this lesson completely, setting the stage for some nasty scrapping between these boys. A savvier, bolder movie, such as Ruben Östlund's Play, can spin a premise like that into a sharp disproof of children's imputed "innocence"; it can even do so while retaining some empathy for these feckless, cruel, barely-parented kids. But not only do Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen forsake that route, they ratchet up this plot-strand for maximal histrionics, posing school-age children simultaneously as terrorist threats and suicide risks. The score urges us to take all this as Highly Lamentable, but the exact contour of what we're here to lament never resolves. If Bier has a template, it's Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, another continent-hopping ode to the tragically ineffable, or the ineffably tragic, or something. Babel is grandiose and unconvincing, though at least González Iñárritu retains intermittent abilities to shape a scene or helm a good performance. By contrast, Bier's movie is even more scattershot than Babel in form as well as content, and its heart bleeds more profusely. The inelegant images, crudely color-saturated in the African sequences, dully framed and boringly gray in Europe, pay no dividends. The narrative is openly disheveled. Rumors of infidelity briefly swirl around Anton's wife, possibly linked to Christian's father, but they get dropped as soon as they're raised. You don't even need the IMDB trivia page to surmise some rough amputations, late in the editing process.

Speaking of editing, Bier indulges her characteristic but inexplicable habit of cutting at random times to extreme close-ups (ears, eyeballs, eyelashes) or to highly self-conscious frames, like a far-overhead shot of a man in a lake, none of which advance story, mood, or characterization. I take them as defensive affidavits that Bier has thought about her shots. Maybe they're offered more loftily, as auteurist signatures; after all, Bier even finds room for gratuitous eyeball shots in her most recent movie, Bird Box, in which the characters are mostly blindfolded. All of this suggests a total divorce of cinematic sense, by which cuts, frames, lenses, and sound cues not only serve but help to constitute the meat of a story or the truth of a character, from a looser idea of cinematic intention, by which filmmakers simply mark their own presence. "I am the decider!" these shots declaim on the director's behalf. "Kilroy Was Here!" So what if they barely elucidate who Kilroy is, or where "here" is. In the previous decade, you could at least expect forceful but thoughtful performances from Bier's actors, like the central trio in Brothers or Sidse Babett Knudsen in After the Wedding or the glorious, under-celebrated Benicio Del Toro in Things We Lost in the Fire, Bier's English-language debut. Sadly, In a Better World's ensemble, including such staples of Danish prestige cinema as Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Drynholm, looks lost and abstracted: here stifling tears, there bellowing despair, typically gazing off into middle distances. Eventually, inevitably, a non-diegetic soundtrack of wordless, consonant-less, globally-unplaceable keening gets recruited to paste together this hollow elegy.

That Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is dispiriting, both because the film is so subpar and because its internal notion of "foreignness" is pat, exoticizing, and under-explored—often, maybe even especially, at the very moments when the film intends some comment on global conditions. This vague, mealy-mouthed movie emerged victorious with Oscar in the same year that Yorgos Lanthimos's brazen, demanding Dogtooth stalked its way onto the ballot, the first sign that changing that category's voting protocols would clear a wider path for challenging fare. Indeed, after several consecutive years of Stouffer's Lasagnas like this and Tsotsi and The Secret in Their Eyes, the Academy has spent nearly a decade anointing films of credibly global stature. I don't admire them all equally, but the winning works directed by Farhadi, Haneke, Lelio, Pawlikowski, Nemes, and Sorrentino have ambitions, perspectives, and aesthetic pedigrees worth contemplating. So it's a sad paradox but also a silver lining that In a Better World, which emanates such a tangible yearning to speak to its moment, stands now as a barely-remembered footnote, an instant fossil, an epitaph for a middling brand of Fodor's Cinema we have hopefully stopped commemorating as vanguard work. Grade: C–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign Language Film

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign Language Film

Other Awards:
European Film Awards: Best European Director

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