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In a Better World

directed by Susanne Bier

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 28, 2011
Category: Drama

I saw “In a Better World” — this year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film — in a theater with a dozen people.

This was in cosmopolitan New York.

The evening show on a weekday night.

Depressing.

Even more depressing when you consider that the director — Susanne Bier — is also the director of After the Wedding, an exceptional movie that was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 2007. (It lost to the German entry, “The Lives of Others.”) In 2010, "In a Better World" won.

I don’t rank film directors by the awards they get — when I say that Ms. Bier is one of the greatest filmmakers on the planet, it’s because that’s what I really think. My reasons? Her movies are strong melodramas. Her actors are not beautiful in the way movie stars are beautiful — no Botox, no surgery. The dialogue in her movies doesn’t show off a screenwriter’s cleverness. She doesn’t telegraph the emotions she wants you to feel with music.

No wonder “In a Better World” has grossed just $230,000 in the United States.

If you stand outside a theater showing “In a Better World” and other movies and watch people leaving, you can easily identify who saw the Bier film — they’re the people who are silent. Slack-jawed. Maybe even weeping. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here. To buy the download, click here. To rent the streaming video, click here.]

How is  a Bier film different from a movie we all liked — “The King’s Speech,” for example? Ah, that’s the thing. There’s no comparison. “The King’s Speech” is entertainment: a formula movie, a buddy film. It’s “Rocky” — only here the underdog is the King of England. And the moral? You’ve heard it a zillion times: You can make it if you try.

The genius of “The King’s Speech” is that it’s methodical about the buttons it pushes — the challenges are neatly presented, the solutions appear right on cue.

The genius of Susanne Bier movies is that she pushes buttons for which there are no neat answers. And offering solutions is not her intent. She presents characters who are just like us — that is, they’re suffering and trying to make the best of it — and you fall in love with them, in all their glorious pain, and then things start happening. And you’re stuck. You’re no longer watching a movie. You’re living it. Like this:

“In a Better World” is about two families in Denmark.

Anton and his wife Marianne are both doctors, but their marriage is failing, and Anton is away for months at a time, working in a Doctors Without Borders medical mission in Africa. Their son, Elias, is a sweet 10-year-old who is regularly bullied at school — a fact he doesn’t share with his parents.

Christian is also ten. He’s the son of Claus, a rich Danish businessman who has moved his family to London. But Christian’s mother has recently died of cancer, and Claus has moved back to Denmark.

Two boys. One victimized and confused. One grieving and enraged. Naturally they bond. Naturally, Christian comes to Elias’s defense.

In Danish, the title of this movie is "Haevnen," which translates to "revenge” — and that is what the movie is about. Life hits you with a baseball bat, and how do you respond? And if you can identify your tormentor and hit him back, then what?

Christian hits back. And plans, with Elias, to do it again. And their parents? Anton has a doctor’s code in Africa; he treats everyone. In Denmark, he tries to live the same way. But when he sees a kid beating another in a playground, he intervenes —  and for his troubles, the bully’s father pushes him around.

It gets worse. Anton goes, with his kids, to confront that bully. The guy’s a thug. He slaps Anton around. And promises more. Anton doesn’t retaliate. Instead — in a scene I guarantee you will never see in a movie financed by Hollywood — Anton explains to the kids that the bully “lost” the moment he threw the first punch.

Really? I often quote the line “Don’t pick up the rope” — but how many times can you walk away? At what point does unchallenged bullying become evil? Should we be so above the fray that a monster can march us into a concentration camp? Where do we draw a line?

The people — I hesitate to call them “characters” — in Bier’s movie fumble with these issues. Because Bier is a ruthlessly efficient director, they don’t talk much. They act. Things happen. Things go wrong.

Do you remember that scene in “Kramer vs. Kramer” when Dustin Hoffman’s son has an accident in Central Park and Hoffman grabs him and runs with him to the emergency room? Your heart was, as they say, in your mouth; your eyes misted. There’s a scene in this movie that has that feeling. No disrespect to Dustin Hoffman or his director, Robert Benton — this scene is better.

Over and over my wife and I groaned as we watched “In a Better World.” Groaned because we were watching scenes like no others and had no defense against the novelty. Groaned because we identified so strongly with the people, because we shared their hurt and confusion.

No one heard us — as I say, we were almost alone in the theater. As you will be if you go to see “In a Better World.” Those emotional blows, you will find, are cleansing; as the characters work toward some kind of healing, so do you. And when they get to the end, so do you.

Yes, you leave the theater battered. But also relieved. And smarter. And grateful for the experience.

I’d drive a hundred miles, if I had to, to see “In a Better World.” It’s gone from theaters now. But it’s well worth owning.