In a Better World (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
Parallel stories, ostensibly set in Denmark and Africa but annoyingly inhabiting every character arc, mark director Susanne Bier's latest examination of societal psyches.
Most of In a Better World revolves around two boys, Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen). Elias is a good-hearted, bucktoothed kid in the process of developing his father's complex conscience — his father is away for long intervals serving as a doctor in a poor African town under siege by a ruthless man known only as Big Man — while Christian, having lost his mother to cancer, has been exploring a more primal, eye-for-an-eye worldview.
Their two disparate paths cross when Christian stands up for the picked-on Elias and sends a bully to the hospital. Under Christian's wing now, Elias watches helplessly as the two are launched headfirst down a spiral of destruction, of escalating vengeance that threatens their own lives and the lives of innocents. Meanwhile, Elias' pacifist father (the great Mikael Persbrandt) faces a dilemma of his own when Big Man comes to him with a leg injury.
There are countless other subplots thrown in — an auto mechanic bully, an estranged wife, guilt, blame, the kitchen sink — until the film, which inexplicably took the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar trophy in February, takes on the tone of a really well-acted school assembly, where overly obvious morality scenarios are acted out in a "good" way and a "bad" way.
Bier marches out plot developments not as organic reactions but as deliberately contrary philosophies forced to go head-to-head in a cage match. That's especially disappointing when you consider that Bier avoided similar temptation in her other recent cautionary tales, Brothers and Things We Lost in the Fire; the latter even overcame the seemingly impossible hurdle of being written by Allan Loeb, Hollywood's deputy mayor of obvious condescension. Strangely, Bier can't seem to find her balance in World's otherwise cut-and-dry duality.