Thursday, May 5, 2011

In a Better World: Exploring our breaking points

In a Better World (2010) • View trailer for In a Better World
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence and disturbing content involving children
By Derrick Bang

Living a life of serene tolerance — resisting imprudent flashes of temper, turning the other cheek in the face of provocation — is an honorable goal.
The oft-bullied Elias (Markus Rygaard, left) makes no effort to conceal his
delight over the protective camaraderie shown by his new friend, Christian
(William Johnk Nielsen). But the quieter Christian's still waters run very deep,
and over dangerous shoals; before long, Elias will be tempted to stray from the
path of virtue, while struggling to decide just how far he should go, in an
effort to keep this new friendship.

Sadly, good intentions often evaporate under unexpected circumstances. We all have flash points: sometimes blatantly obvious, sometimes deeply buried. When push comes to shove, a lifetime of resolution may yield to vengeful fury: an act which, once done, cannot be undone.

All that remains then is regret: the realization that years of “good” behavior have been buried beneath a brief moment of “bad” behavior.

Act in haste, as the saying goes. Repent in leisure. Usually forever.

Director Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, which just took a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, explores the nature of violence, vengeance and repression. Anders Thomas Jensen’s script follows a small cluster of characters, each with different temperaments and strategies for coping with life. Some are victims; others are oppressors. At least one tries, in the face of soul-deadening circumstances, to remain neutral.

On a much quieter level, Bier’s film can be seen as a Danish response to Canadian director David Cronenberg’s disturbing 2005 thriller, A History of Violence. Both films focus on men who attempt to lead peaceful, dignified lives; both protagonists, ultimately, aren’t allowed to do so. Circumstances intrude. Life intrudes.

It’s one of the age-old arguments between pacifists and aggressors: Armchair idealism is well and good, the latter will argue, but what will you do when dumped into a foxhole? Wait to be killed?

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) leads a split life. We meet him toiling as a humanitarian medic in a refugee camp, buried within an unnamed and quite dangerous African country, via a Doctors Without Borders program. When on leave, he returns home to an idyllic town in Denmark.

Alas, his personal life isn’t nearly as tranquil; being at home means being reminded of the fractured relationship with his wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm). They’ve separated; divorce seems imminent. The fault is Anton’s; he had an affair, for which Marianne cannot forgive him. He’s genuinely regretful — and there’s no question; he truly is — but she can’t move on.

Unfortunately, Anton isn’t around enough to perceive the greater problem looming in his family. His elder son, 10-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), is being bullied at school: quite badly, in fact. Two factors make the boy a constant target, one physical, one cultural. The poor kid has lamentable teeth, leading to the cruel nickname of “Ratface.” Worse still, though, Elias and his family are Swedish.

American viewers with a idealized notion of Scandinavian solidarity are apt to be bewildered by this blatantly racist hostility; in point of fact, Denmark and Sweden have loathed each other for hundreds of years. The issue always has been land, with Denmark usually on the losing end of various shifting borders. What we now know as Norway once belonged to Denmark, and was ceded to Sweden in 1814, following the Napoleonic wars. Sweden peacefully allowed Norway independence in 1905, and the various borders have been reasonable stable for the past century.

But that hasn’t stopped the bickering between Denmark and Sweden. To this day, both Copenhagen and Stockholm vie to be recognized as the “capital of the region.”

We’ve no idea why Anton and his family live in Denmark; it really doesn’t matter. But the resulting dynamic, as viewed by this story’s incidental Danes, is that the “Swedish oppressors” now are a minority, and therefore easy targets. Elias, as a result, doesn’t have a chance in hell.

Except that salvation arrives most unexpectedly, in the form of Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a boy newly arrived from London. Christian’s grandmother lives in this same town; Christian’s father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), has returned “home” following his wife’s painful, lingering death from cancer. Claus’ plan, to the degree that he has one, is to provide his only son with some sort of stability; as with Anton, Claus is a frequently absent father, in his case due to business matters.

The similarity between the two men stops there, however; whereas Anton is successfully involved with Elias, Claus hasn’t the faintest idea how to connect with Christian. Indeed, that battle apparently was lost years ago; Christian clearly loathes his father ... but not with justification. As we gradually learn, the badly conflicted boy blames his father for his mother’s death, in ill-defined ways.

The tragedy has left Christian with an attitude that demands control. His response, then, when slightly injured after trying to intervene on Elias’ behalf, is to enact the nuclear option against the primary bully. This follows the old schoolyard law: If I strike first, and strike hard, they’ll leave me alone. The attack’s brutality, coming from this hitherto calm and quiet boy, is shocking. Elias is both horrified ... and grateful.

The subsequent parent/teacher/counselor session is almost comical in its absurdity, with the school officials forming a chilly wall of apparent indifference to Marianne’s legitimate insistence that they’ve done nothing to stop those tormenting her son. We have to assume this encounter reeks of latent racism on the school’s part; nothing else makes sense. The headmaster’s admonition that all the boys “shake and part friends” is jaw-droppingly insulting and naïve, particularly with our 21st century awareness of the need to quell unrestrained bullying as quickly as possible.

Christian and Elias bond; Anton, still on leave for a time, is grateful that his outcast elder son finally has made a friend. But Anton fails to perceive that Christian is a deeply disturbed boy.

Christian’s righteous indignation is triggered anew when his new friend’s father is, in turn, bullied by a racist horse’s ass one day at a park. Anton takes the boys along later, to confront this jerk; the encounter produces nothing but more hostility on the part of the other man, which Anton pointedly ignores.

This is the lesson, Anton later explains to the boys: I won, and he lost, because he’s not worth worrying about.

He doesn’t think he lost,” Christian insists.

And that, sadly, is the issue. Too many people aren’t content to walk away as victors; they have to make sure their opponents know that they’re defeated.

Christian’s eyes narrow, and we shudder: This new situation is far from over.

Time passes. Back in Africa, Anton’s claim to sainthood is about to be tested. The refugees he helps are terrified of a local warlord dubbed “The Big Man,” whose brutality defies description. When not slaughtering the inhabitants of villages outright, he bets on the sex of unborn children ... and then slits open the bellies of the pregnant women, in order to verify his wager. Anton winds up trying to save the women’s lives.

So, the question hovers: Is mankind ennobled by the efforts of honorable pacifists such as Anton ... or would the world be better if bullies and “Big Men” were removed from it?

Although Beir’s film is well populated with supporting characters, she focuses primarily on Anton, Elias and Christian. Both young actors are excellent: Rygaard with Elias’ raw emotions worn on his sleeve; Nielsen with his pent-up frustration and hostility seething just below the surface.

Rygaard’s performance is particularly heartbreaking, since Elias is forced to weigh his moral upbringing against a desperate desire to retain this new friend’s attention ... even as Christian’s behavior slides way beyond Elias’ comfort zone. Rygaard really nails it, his eyes a raw blend of hope, concern and mounting terror. Give a friendless boy an unprecedented ally, and he’ll do anything to maintain this new relationship ... and that’s a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

But Nielsen is equally persuasive, and Christian isn’t solely a cold, methodical planner; he comes unglued each time his father tries to penetrate his son’s chilly exterior. We gradually realize that Christian dare not allow genuine candor, lest he slide into the cathartic, uncontrolled grief that he clearly needs ... but refuses to indulge. That’s a lot to ask of a young actor, and Nielsen delivers.

We can wonder, finally, if Bier deliberately guided Persbrandt into emphasizing Anton’s Christ-like qualities; with his beard and soulful, often despondent expression, Anton even resembles an idealized, Western European Jesus. But Persbrandt’s performance isn’t solely iconic, which is appropriate; we’d not be able to identify with him as “real,” if that were the case. No, Persbrandt makes his character a flawed man trying to be better: a husband who hurt his wife, and desperately wishes to atone for this; a father who wants his son to understand that violence, by definition, only begets more violence.

The only mildly weak element in Jensen’s script is the dance of guilt and recrimination between Anton and his estranged wife; we’re not given enough information to assess whether Marianne should forgive him. Her character also feels underdeveloped; Dyrholm does her best, but Marianne seems too shrill and superficial. We need more scenes — and better-developed moments — between husband and wife.

As a passing observation, I’m intrigued by the parallels between Beir’s feature and one of 2010’s Academy Award-nominated short subjects: Tanel Toom’s The Confession. This little film also explores the dangerous adolescent dynamic between a calculating, morally challenged boy and his impressionable, overly trusting friend ... with similarly tragic consequences. The serendipity is intriguing, and also timely; we all need to be more skilled at the art of perceiving troubled youth, in order to intervene before catastrophe erupts.

Our best films engage and instruct while involving us in the fate of characters with whom we empathize. Bier succeeds on all levels, leaving us with a veritable banquet for thought, as we indulge — after the screen darkens, and the lights come up — in that most provocative game: What would I have done?

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