Exploring the violent impulses of fathers and sons

Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier specializes in melodramas marked by an uncommonly profound depth of emotion. The recipient of this year’s Miami International Film Festival Career Achievement Tribute, Bier ( Open Hearts, Brothers, After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire) knows how to get audiences to identify with her seemingly ordinary characters, so when she suddenly thrusts them — and us — into moral or romantic quandaries born of everyday occurrences, those dilemmas become spellbinding.

In a Better World, which on Sunday won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is neither Bier’s best nor most subtle picture. But even at her most heavy-handed, Bier knows how to dig her hooks into you. Once again collaborating with her frequent partner, screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, she tells the story of the friendship between two boys: Elias (Markus Rygaard), the frequent target of bullies at school, and Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), who moves to town after the death of his mother and quickly rises to Elias’ defense, earning his unyielding loyalty.

Elias yearns to spend more time with his father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor often away in Kenya, where he tends to the victims of an increasingly violent warlord who has taken to slicing open pregnant women. Meanwhile, Christian is growing increasingly detached from his dad Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), whom he silently blames for allowing his mom to succumb to cancer. The seemingly mild-mannered Christian has already demonstrated a hair-raising capacity for violence: After the boys watch another man slap Anton repeatedly without reprisal, they hatch a potentially dangerous plan to get even.

In a Better World, which was titled The Revenge in Denmark, explores the consequences of violent retribution, which all sensible adults know is a losing proposition but sometimes feels like the only reasonable way out of a corner.

When Anton takes his son and Christian along to confront the man who struck him and show them that aggression gets you nowhere, he ends up being even more humiliated in front of the boys, who don’t buy his pacifist arguments. Later in the film, Anton’s turn-the-other-cheek stance is sorely tested in Kenya, where the atrocities he witnesses become too horrific not to incite bloodlust. That harrowing sequence is the movie’s high point: Less effective is the aftermath of Elias and Christian’s revenge, which culminates in the sort of emotional manipulations and overly neat resolutions Bier’s best films scrupulously avoid.

Nonetheless, In a Better World asks worthwhile questions about how fathers can best lead their sons, about the expectations placed on men by society and about their struggles with their inner violent impulses, which can lay so dormant and unnoticed, then, in a frightening rush, explode.

Movie Info

Cast: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Nielsen.

Director: Susanne Bier.

Screenwriter: Anders Thomas Jensen.

Producer: Sisse Graum Jorgensen.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 113 minutes. In English, Danish and Swedish with English subtitles. Vulgar language. Plays at 7 p.m. Sunday at Gusman.


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