It’s easy to see why In a Better World (Haevnen) won the Oscar for best foreign film: It’s got big issues on the brain — violence and pacifism — and the Danish scenery is gorgeous. But, unfortunately, that also means it’s sufficiently unobjectionable to appeal to a broad audience without being audacious enough to be truly great.
The story quickly establishes storylines on two continents. Anton, a Swedish doctor with a family in Denmark, works in Sudan, where young pregnant girls are being mutilated by a local thug. Back in Denmark, his young son Elias has fallen in with his classmate Christian, whose taste for brutal retribution is frightening.
By developing distinct stories on the same theme but on separate continents, director Susanne Bier creates a very abbreviated version of Babel’s “hyperlink cinema.” But unlike Babel, here the parallels seem purposeful, and the intercontinental divide makes it all more dramatic. The trade-off, however, is that the convenient intersection of thematically linked stories seems contrived if you stop to think about it at all.
Likewise, the conclusion is a bit too pat to feel believable. In a more limited film, we can accept a happy end to one character arc, but here some three or four conflicts are neatly tied up in one fell swoop, straining credibility. Maybe this is why Roger Ebert and New York Times critic A.O. Scott have both expressed dismay at the ease with which the movie concludes, particularly because, as Scott notes, the movie’s protagonists are all white people with stable finances who don’t normally live under the constant threat of bloodshed. These characters, once disillusioned with violence, may not ever be faced with it again, but in the real world in general and the developing world specifically, violence is still all too present.
Beyond plot problems, though, there is the somewhat mechanical deployment of characters. Anton, we learn, believes in pacifism, but there is little else to distinguish him as a person outside of his ideology. Even on these grounds, he is not very instructive; though the events of Sudan provide poignant commentary on his non-violent stance, he never really reacts to these developments.
Christian, meanwhile, is developed as an icy sociopath for most of the movie, but it becomes clear in the final act that his mother’s recent death is the root of his cold demeanor and propensity for harming others. In other words, by the logic of the movie, the violence he perpetrates comes from emotional trauma, so he is not intrinsically evil. A more challenging film might have explored the more frightening but more plausible hypothesis that people are frequently violent simply out of self interest, or that occasionally violent people might do things to redeem themselves but without renouncing their brutish selves.
Crash, one of the few Hollywood movies to investigate this idea, had a racist, bullying cop save the life of the woman he had sexually assaulted earlier. Most pointedly, his heroic act didn’t come out of any emotional revelation. The duality in his character was left an open puzzle, and that seems a more basically honest approach than the reassuring bromides that In a Better World trades in.