In a Better World, winner of the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, kept me captivated almost to the end, when director Susanne Bier used a plot device hokey enough to make me question the whole movie in retrospect. “Where else did she cheat?,” I wondered, and filmmakers should never do anything to make you ask yourself that question.
Most of the film takes place in Denmark, with periodic jumps to a refugee camp in Africa, which apparently is a lot closer to Denmark than I thought, judging from the ease with which one character commutes between the two places. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is the Swedish doctor doing the commuting. When he isn't treating the victims of a vicious warlord, he frets over his son Elias (Markus Rygaard), the frequent target of an anti-Swedish school bully.
Another father and son enter the picture. Young Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), whose mother recently died, stays with his grandmother while his dad (Ulrich Thomsen) is away at work. Christian sees Elias getting bullied and elects to assault the bully himself – the best defense is a good offense, it appears. Everything turns ugly fast, as Christian's preventive-attack tactic escalates. Meanwhile, Dr. Anton finds his non-violent philosophy put to the test at home and abroad.
I won't detail the contrivance that bugged the hell out of me – suffice to say it takes place on a roof when a parent has a revelation and opts for high drama instead of simply dialing the Danish equivalent of 911. Up to that scene, I was swept away by the strong acting (especially by young Nielsen) and all the ethical questions clanging in my head. After the cheat, I wondered if the film was too pat, too contrived, too self-congratulatory. I'm still not sure – but I can tell you this – the movie warrants a look-see for the acting alone. Wrestling with its structural validity is a bonus feature.