After a rocky run at Hollywood, including disappointing directorial effort “Things We Lost in the Fire” and so-so remakes of her films “Open Hearts” and “Brothers,” Susanne Bier returns to her native Denmark with “In a Better World,” a powerful contempo drama exploring behavioral connections between episodes of schoolyard bullying at home and escalating tribal violence abroad. In a better world, auds would line up for such quality fare; in this one, though Euro and festival interest should be strong, the Sony Classics release won’t travel far beyond arthouses Stateside, despite its status as Denmark’s Oscar submission.
Dividing its time between rural Denmark and a Kenyan field hospital, the story follows two absentee fathers as they attempt to uphold the same moral lessons they teach their children. Pic opens on Anton (Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt, whose non-Danish “outsider” status may be lost on American auds) operating on African women brutally attacked by a local villain known only as “Big Man.” Though he sees the worst of human nature every day, Anton remains an optimist, trying to win back his estranged wife (Trine Dyrholm) and be a proper role model to his troubled son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), both of whom live comfortably back in Europe.
Despite his frequent absences, Anton is a more attentive father than Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), a businessman still emotionally distracted by his wife’s recent death. Claus has just relocated from London with his son, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a young lad Elias’ age who keeps his own temper barely corked; when he sees his scrawny new friend being harassed by the class bully, Christian intervenes in an unexpectedly violent way — an altercation serious enough to trigger a police inquest.
Both Anton and Claus seem incredulous that their sons could be involved in a knife fight, missing the signs that the kids are just getting started. Christian harbors a frighteningly righteous sense of payback to any and all who offend him; he’s the sort of volatile character one might expect to encounter in a school-shooting parable, though Bier and longtime screenwriting collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen steer the narrative in another direction. While Anton sees a random altercation with a local (Kim Bodnia) as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of turning the other cheek, Christian misses the point entirely, and before long, he and Elias are building pipe bombs and making rash judgment calls with irreversible consequences.
If the action were limited exclusively to the kids, “In a Better World” would come across as little more than another bad-seed thriller. However, with the broader arena of Kenya to convey similar themes, the story takes on a more universal scope (much as Bier used the Indian orphanage in her Oscar-nominated 2006 film, “After the Wedding”). By setting the notion of pacifism in direct conflict with humans’ tendency toward retribution, Bier and Jensen orchestrate a moral conundrum worthy of philosopher-helmer Krzysztof Kieslowski himself, calling for the sort of tough character decisions auds will find themselves debating long after the lights come up.
Though “World” never reaches the heights of the helmer’s earlier work, between the expert cast — including impressive turns from the two young thesps — and the helmer’s instinct for minutely observed character detail, this war of the buttons handily overcomes its more conceptual aspects (as when the bloodthirsty Big Man, played by Evans Muthini, inevitably turns up as a patient at Anton’s clinic) to feel disconcertingly plausible.
However didactic the film’s final scenes, there’s no denying the sheer dramatic intensity Bier achieves, backed by Morten Soborg’s elegant, intuitive handheld lensing and a heavily Africa-inspired (and occasionally heavy-handed) choral score.