‘Better World’ challenges pacifistic idealism

by Andrew Younger

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Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“You can’t just go around beating people up. That doesn’t help anything. What kind of world would we get?”

That is the central question the film “In a Better World” addresses in Director Susanne Bier’s multifaceted exploration of the nature of conflict. Bier crafts a story devoid of moral authority. Those in power, whether it’s a Sudanese warlord or a middle school bully at the bike racks, maintain it through brute force and intimidation. Those idealists who appeal to humanity and civil discourse nobly take a beating. The quiet hope is that children will not perpetuate this cycle of violence.

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), one of the noble idealists, splits time between his son Elias (Markus Rygaard), his estranged wife in Denmark and volunteer work as a doctor without borders in a Sudanese refugee camp. In the camp, Anton witnesses the horror brought upon the refugees, particularly pregnant women, at the hands of the aptly named local warlord Big Man (Evans Muthini). Meanwhile, Anton’s long absences and lack of guidance leave his son Elias vulnerable to the tender mercies of the school bully Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm).

When the volatile 12-year-old Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) transfers to Elias’ school after the death of his mother, the two outcasts become quick friends. This burgeoning friendship leads to retaliation as Christian beats Sofus with a bicycle pump — putting him in the hospital. Neither the police nor the school officials mete out any consequences for the attack. Emboldened by his newfound power, Christian takes it upon himself to right a perceived injustice against Elias’ family — an action with potentially tragic consequences. At the same time, Anton’s pacifism is challenged when Big Man comes to him in need of treatment, despite the desperate pleas of the refugees whose family members he has killed.

In less capable hands, “In a Better World” could have easily been a sprawling, heavy-handed message movie about the corrupting nature of power. However, Bier’s direction keeps the film tightly focused on the emotional toll of pushing the characters’ beliefs to their breaking point. She also deserves credit for eliciting two of the best performances from child actors in recent memory. In particular, Nielsen becomes completely consumed in Christian’s barely-suppressed rage and strikes a surprisingly menacing and unpredictable figure for someone so young. Bier said the English title “In a Better World” is preferable to the Danish title “Haevnen” (literally “Revenge”), because the original title only addressed the ugliness of humanity, whereas the English title offers the possibility of hope for the future. With performances such as Nielsen’s, there is plenty to be hopeful for.

Information about “In a Better World” can be found at sonyclassics.com/inabetterworld

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