How does a movie about two boys fighting back against a schoolyard bully in Denmark wind up in a refugee camp in Africa? By overreaching, badly. Winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Susanne Bier’s In A Better World has been given an English title that speaks to its aspirational quality. For Bier isn’t making a small-scale drama about the escalating problems caused by two picked-on boys fighting fire with fire, but rather a sprawling thesis on the ethics of conflict itself, from middle-school bathrooms to the killing fields of Sudan. There’s a high degree of difficulty in extrapolating minor incidents into a major statement, because the minor incidents tend to look blurry and distorted when magnified out of proportion. Bier allows her film to be buried by its own overwrought ambition.
In A Better World starts off strong, perhaps because it effectively conceals its grand design. After passively accepting the abuses of bullies who call him “Ratface” and take the air out of his bicycle tires, young Markus Rygaard catches a break when he befriends a new Swedish student, played by William Johnk Nielsen. Nielsen gets picked on, too, but his simple, effective solution is to beat the chief bully repeatedly with a bicycle pump and hold a knife to his throat until he promises never to bother them again. Yet Nielsen, still burning with resentment over his father’s treatment of his late mother, doesn’t stop there. When a belligerent adult pushes around Rygaard’s father Mikael Persbrandt, Nielsen ropes Rygaard into a much more extreme act of retribution.
Bier knows how to get an emotional response—it’s impossible to watch films like Open Hearts or Brothers without getting choked up a little—but mostly because her films are so dramatically rigged. In A Better World seems poised to offer something subtler in the early stretches, when Bier digs into the familial instability that drives these boys off the track. But the more it expands, the more the gears of the script become visible: A sequence that follows Persbrandt, a doctor, to a refugee camp in war-torn Africa, where he opts to care for a murderous warlord, seems like a short film unto itself. By connecting it to the larger whole, Bier turns In A Better World into another Crash, a film in service to a tortured thesis.