Director Susanne Bier’s latest film, “In a Better World,” juxtaposes a number of conflicts of varying scope to explore just how civilized we really are. Many of the showdowns propose interesting moral questions, but the film falls apart as she tries to draw parallels and analogies that don’t hold up.
Mikael Persbrandt is a force as Anton, a surgeon who splits his time between caring for patients in an African refugee camp, and staying in his family’s summer home in Denmark, so he can be close to his sons and estranged wife Marianne. He’s the film’s moral compass, spinning around in search on magnetic north. He’s strong and smart and loving and charitable and forthright--you'd walk through a wall of fire with him.
But when he tries to teach his son--a victim of daily abuse at the hands of a school bully--that violence is wrong, the lesson rings hollow. Ignoring the provocations of some buffoon with whom you have a chance encounter is one thing. But expecting a kid not to strike back at his tormentor after the school and his parents have failed to protect him, even though they know the abuse is taking place…? This is in no way to condone or encourage violence, but at some point, tragically, it can seem to be the only option.
Later, Anton is confronted with a monster who mutilates pregnant women for sport, his son is involved in two bloody acts of revenge, he begs his wife for forgiveness—he’s involved in almost every conflict of consequence in the film, trying to find his way.
In her director’s statement, Bier said she sought to ask “whether our own ‘advanced’ culture is the model for a better world, or whether the same disarray found in lawlessness is lurking beneath the surface of our civilization. Are we immune to chaos, or obliviously teetering on the verge of disorder?”
We are unequivocally living in a better world, to suggest otherwise is misguided. “Our own ‘advanced’ culture” is in fact a model in as much as we have developed the political and physical infrastructure that greatly lowers the stakes for life's daily confrontations. Tragically, many of these advancements were made at the expense of the blood and treasure of the African people, but the world today is infinitely less violent.
"That modernity has brought us terrible violence, and perhaps that native peoples lived in a state of harmony that we have departed from" is a common misconception, declared Harvard University Professor Steven Pinker during a 2007 TED talk. “Today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.”
Bier should watch it, she would no doubt feel better about things.
Despite a muscular and charismatic leading man, and some morally provocative set pieces, the moments "In a Better World" fails to offer a cohesive thesis.
In Danish and Swedish with English subtitles