Many times, critics try to write the film history books by declaring movies groundbreaking, innovative, daring, or bold. We note trends, developments, and overall moods in the field of cinema at large. We have little power to affect artistic merit, but we have a great deal of power in affecting how much cultural merit a film has.
It’s all too easy to make our ultimate standard of good filmmaking those movies that we can declare relevant. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to get a reminder like “In a Better World” that these aren’t the only criteria for great movies. Susanne Bier’s film is a powerful and moving testament to cinema’s ability to engage us through authentic portrayal of primal human emotions. It’s unlikely to shake the earth with its ingenuity, but it’s almost guaranteed to make your heart shake in your seat.
While the title “In a Better World” conveys a sense of almost utopian optimism, perhaps the original Danish title, which translates to “Revenge,” better conveys the film’s exploration. Across two continents, Bier weaves a parable about the forces that bring about one of our ugliest, deepest, yet most primordial instinct and how the strength and resilience of the human spirit can resist caving into it. The story may have been told before, but it’s one of the greatest cinematic feats when someone like Bier can make the narrative just as captivating as if we were experiencing it for the first time.
The film centers around two Danish children who form an unusual alliance. Christian, who has just moved from London after the death of his mother, is troubled and tough, seemingly the last person who would befriend the mild-mannered Elias, a social outcast mocked for his braces and called a rat while beaten. The two strike up a friendship, perhaps to the dismay of Elias’ parents, who are separated and struggling with the fear that their marriage may permanently disintegrate.
Christian and Elias, both the victims of bullying, begin to toy with the idea of violence to exact their vengeance. Meanwhile, in the deserts of Sudan, Elias’ father is struggling with similar dilemmas as a local warlord comes to him for treatment. This could easily devolve into a derivative morality play, but Bier’s “In a Better World,” through character development and firm direction, does no such thing. It becomes a transcendent exploration of the dark side of humanity and how we can overcome it.
So while perhaps it may not be the smartest movie, or the most original, it most definitely stimulates the spirit. This may be an old cinematic strategy, but by no means should critics ever be able to declare it outdated. ”In a Better World” is living proof that a movie relying almost solely on an appeal to pathos can still be just as effective as any intellectual film. A- /