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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

In a Better World (Limited Release Date: 4-1-2011)

        If there's one thing that Oscar really loves, it's throwing a curveball with his pick for Best Foreign Language Feature. At the 2010 show, every last dime of smart money was on either The White Ribbon or A Prophet, but when the announcement finally arrived (SURPRISE!!!), it was The Secret in Their Eyes that walked away with the statue. Just the year before, American favorite Let the Right One In couldn't even muster a nomination, and the two favorites, The Class and Waltz with Bashir, ended up watching the unseen and now long-forgotten Departures take home the gold. When factoring in other foreign heavy-weights of the last few years including The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (mysteriously not nominated) and Pan's Labyrinth (losing to The Lives of Others), one starts to get the impression that Oscar just likes to see the looks on our faces. But this last Oscars was different, when the Academy finally matched up with the Golden Globes and picked acclaimed Director Susanne Bier's In a Better World, making it the first selection in years to have been legitimately expected.

        Like the globe-trotting, humanity-examining works of Alejandro González Iñárritu or Stephen Gaghan, Better World is a film unfolding in multiple locals, and involving a whole web of people. First of all, there's Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a hardworking Swedish doctor toiling away in a Sudanese refugee camp. Back home, he has an estranged wife (Trine Dyrholm) and, more importantly (plot-wise), a timid son Elias (Markus Rygaard) who is the victim of the kind of brutal bullying that you only find in the movies. Just as Elias seems completely unable to protect himself, a new boy named Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) joins the school. Not about to put up with Elias' treatment, Christian takes the meek boy under his wing, showing him the ways of retaliation. It should come as no surprise that such a wounded young soul has a heart-breaking backstory, Christian's mother having died of cancer before the film starts, his relationship with his father (Ulrich Thomsen) strained at best. And so the dominos are set up, and we watch as Bier knocks them all down.

        If you've seen one movie where the world is spanned and the shit hits the fan, then you've pretty much seen them all, and In a Better World stands as a perfect confirmation of this fact. The parallels between the horrifying violence of the Sudan and the bullying and retaliation of Denmark's privileged youths isn't lost on the audience for even a moment. It's right around as straight-faced as movies really get, laughs and smiles kept to the utmost minimum. It's easy to give such a movie a pass, one in which lessons are learned, new parts of the world are seen, and horrible war-time atrocities are committed and lingered on as if to tell you, "Yes, this really does happen." Throw in the standard shot of impoverished yet beaming black children running after a moving car, and you've pretty much checked all your boxes. Some have and will call it inspired and moving: I call it predictable and trite.

        So, yeah, the story in In a Better World... not so much, which is a shame, because it's pretty accomplished in just about every other area. Beautifully shot on often hand-held digital cameras, Bier's team really makes the most of the movie's various locations. Editors Pernille Bech Christensen and Morten Egholm are no slouches either, throwing in jump-cuts, fades, and just about every other trick in the book, all without ever feeling overly-experimental. The acting is also nothing short of superb, Jøhnk Nielsen perfectly straddling the line between young victim and malicious plotter, Persbrandt lending some real depth to the part of the unfailing angel, a simple-minded role that a lesser actor would have been showered with eye-rolls for attempting. Best of all, the thing really moves, keeping the audience engaged from first scene to last even when the tale's soap opera elements become almost unbearable. It's a strange thing to arrive at fondness for a movie whose plot you find almost wholly unappealing, but In a Better World pulled just such a trick on me, and I'm not the least bit above giving credit where credit is due.

Grade: B-

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