Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: In a Better World

Violence = Bad

I don't like the Academy Awards, but I particularly don't like the Best Foreign Film category. The nomination process itself is somewhat of a minefield, with each country only allowed to submit one film. And like most of the categories in the Oscar, the eventual winner tends to be the most conservative, safest film from the wide world of foreign cinema (indeed, condensing said wide world into a single category is more than a little suspect). While the occasional deserving film does sneak through (The Lives of Others in 2006, per example) the winners rarely tend to be the most deserving. Recent winners have been notably suspect. As much as enjoyed The Secret in Their Eyes, to place it on a pedestal above The White Ribbon or A Prophet is absurd. Departures was grand, but utterly safe. And don't get me started on the Counterfeiters, which I shall now casually dub the Countershitters - a film that once more proves the mere mention of the Holocaust seems to guarantee almost parodic superlatives come award season.

This year's recipient is the Danish In A Better World, directed by Susanne Bier and written by Anders Thomas Jensen. I will happily admit that I was more than a little bitter my precious Dogtooth didn't walk away with the pointless accolade - it was way too subversive and clever for that. But the reviews seemed positive, if cautious. So with an open mind and built up loyalty card points (free tickets = w00t!) to the Irish Film Institute I marched.

Perhaps I missed something, because two hours later I walked out of one of the most appallingly bland films I've seen in a long, long time. The narrative is ridiculously derivative and formulaic. The main thematic focus (NB: as I interpreted it) is insultingly simplistic: "violence is bad". Well, fucking duh Ms. Bier: I'm sure we could have all told you that one. Not only that, but there are ludicrously uninformed reasonings why the various characters in this film resort to violence - broken homes, bullying, computer games and of course 'the Internet' are just some of the unimaginative reasons presented that encourage two young boys (Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen) to resort to increasingly violent acts (one happily, another reluctantly). A few reviews I've read have picked up on various subtexts - religious themes (one of the boys is named Christian, in a further act of subtlety) and reflections on the concept of revenge most notably. Excuse me while I proceed to not give a shit. I do not want to undersell the seriousness of some of the topics addressed, and yes some of the reasons for violence here are very real. But without a compelling or original narrative justification to address these ideas, it all comes across as insultingly preachy.

Contrasting with the story of the two boys are their parents, who are no pacifists either. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is employed as a surgeon in Africa. There, he encounters a sadistic warlord who cuts open pregnant women. At home, he tries to teach the boys right & wrong by refusing to violently act against a middle-aged bully who slaps him after Anton has the decency to break up a fight between their two young sons. Subtle this film most certainly is not.

In a Better World is rarely, if ever, anything more than painfully predictable. Every over-exaggerated plot device is clearly going to come back to haunt the characters. And - sigh - they always do, like clockwork. A knife, an abandoned silo, the previously mentioned warlord - all referenced early solely to provide dramatic contrivances later on. Just when you think this might lead to an interesting conclusion, it instead settles on an absurdly, incredible happy ending that has absolutely nothing to say. Indeed, the third act pretty much actively ignores the (entirely uninteresting) ideas that preceded it. 

Positives? The acting isn't bad. The two kids are grand (even if Christian is rarely more than a one-note enigma), and Persbrandt brings a bit of constraint to the melodramatic proceedings. Other performances are overblown, particularly Trine Dyrholm as Anton's wife. The cinematography has been much praised, but being perfectly honest I found it bland and barely perfunctory. The soundtrack is suitably overwrought.

The only thing less inspiring than a bad film is a mediocre film. The only thing worse than a mediocre film is a mediocre film with pretensions of grandeur. In a Better World is nowhere near as clever or insightful as it clearly thinks it is. I have heard much from people who actively liked it, so please don't take my word as gospel. In my humble opinion, however, In a Better World is a very lazy, extremely unimaginative film. In Hollywood, we would never forgive the storytelling and thematic shortcuts utilised here oh so frequently. Just because it's subtitled we shouldn't let it away with murder (a theme appropriately explored unconvincingly in the film itself).

A brief aside: the original Danish title for this film is Hævnen, which roughly translates as 'revenge'. It's more than telling that two far more interesting and complex takes on that particular topic never even made the nominee list. Japan's excellent, subversive Confessions made the ten-film shortlist but not the nomination list. The surprising, energetic I Saw the Devil wasn't even submitted.

Safety trumps imagination once again. In a better world, we'd reward better films.


  1. I agree with you, this was an underwhelming film, and as bad as the Academy is, at least they nominated Dogtooth, even if it was never going to win.

  2. Indeed. The nomination perhaps created false hope though - maybe once, the Academy would reward the rule-breaker rather than the inoffensive, competent one.

    Predictably, it was not to be :(