Saturday, May 21, 2011

In A Better World (Wanous)


Pat ending, but film still makes you think


     The gripping "In a Better World" from Danish director Susanne Bier won both this year's Academy Award and Golden Globe for best foreign picture. And like Bier's first English-language effort, 2007's under-rated "Things We Lost in the Fire," this movie features serious themes supported by excellent performances.
     The original Danish title is "Haevnen" which translates to "Revenge," to me a more appropriate title than "In a Better World." Shaky marriages, absent fathers and pent-up anger are woven into two parallel stories, one set in Africa, the other in Denmark.
     You may recognize Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), Christian's father, from "Duplicity" and "Hitman," while most of the other characters will probably be unfamiliar faces. But everyone in the cast, especially young William Johnk Nielsen as Christian, hits just the right tone to underscore the accumulating tension in the film.
The Danish story begins with a boy being bullied at school and a newly arrived transfer student who stands up for him, which forms a bond between them that will be sorely tested. The bullying continues but spreads beyond the schoolyard and into the adult world.
     The fathers of both boys are absent at crucial times and slowly but surely, the escalating confrontations, a hidden knife and an off-limits rooftop set the stage for impending disaster.
     The African tale takes place in a peaceful village, where the physician-father of the bullied boy staffs a free medical clinic for refugees. The village setting, where the children play games and patients calmly wait to see the doctor, seem just a little too tranquil. It reminds me of those old war movies in which one GI whispers from his foxhole: "You know, it's awfully quiet out there," and another GI answers: "Yeah, too quiet."
You just know something bad is going to happen.
     The African narrative, which unnecessarily weakens the film, ends somewhat predictably, the way good versus evil in Hollywood usually ends. But the Danish story concludes in an unexpected manner.
The forbidden roof, the increasingly explosive violence and a mother's implausible lie send the plot in the direction that's been hinted at since early in the film. And while director Bier leads us right to the edge, is she willing to make us jump?
     "In a Better World" poses questions about violence and its aftermath but leaves us to draw our own conclusions. I was struck by the fact that the African children are happily playing soccer throughout most of the film. But near the end, they are playfully fighting each other, using sticks as swords. Which poses another question: Is that the natural order of things or was it influenced by what the children have witnessed?
The sudden outbursts of hostility, the somber music and the even-more somber faces of the characters all combine to give "In a Better World" a sense of dread that lasts through much of the film.
     Even with the uneven script and the pat endings, I recommend the movie but with this caveat: You may find yourself on the edge of your seat, in breathless anticipation of the expected tragedy.

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[from the Keynoter -] 

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