Not since “Gone Baby Gone” has a case of baby-snatching been taken to such ludicrously straight-faced extremes as in “A Second Chance,” in which a Danish cop attempts to justify stealing a junkie couple’s neglected infant and adopting it as his own. Could the child possibly be “better off” in his custody? Susanne Bier is one of only a handful of directors who could get this much mileage out of such a blatantly contrived scenario, reteaming with “In a Better World” scribe Anders Thomas Jensen for another tightrope walk between piercing human insight and melodramatic potboiler, this one tumbling headlong into the latter category.
Step by step, the pic paves the way for a nearly unthinkable decision: First, officer Andreas (“Game of Thrones” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, no stranger to moral complexity) and his partner, Simon (Ulrich Thomsen, sidelined in a weak supporting role), raid a squalid apartment, surprising ex-con Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his drug-addict g.f., Sanne (model Lykke May Andersen, looking like a cover girl who fell in with the wrong crowd). Hearing a baby’s cries coming from a closet, the cops open the doors to find a neglected infant, Sofus, shivering and smeared in his own excrement.
Outraged that Tristan is out of prison and allowed to mistreat a child in this way, Andreas appeals to his superiors to intervene, but the law offers no solution. And then the movie provides an all-too-convenient catalyst for a preposterous intervention: It seems Andreas and his emotionally fragile wife, Anna (Maria Bonnevie), have a child of approximately the same age as Sofus at home, and no sooner has Andreas identified an infant in need of rescue than his own son dies — suddenly and without warning.
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Anna is devastated, and Andreas makes the snap decision to substitute his son’s not-yet-cold corpse for Sofus, whom he steals while the junkie couple is passed out at their place. Bier presents this unlikely situation like it’s something any reasonable person might do, sensitively lingering as Andreas wipes shit across his dead baby’s face, hoping this pathetic disguise might be enough to fool its zoned-out parents into mistaking it for their own son. Tristan falls for it, concocting a desperate plot to cover the kid’s death, but Sanne isn’t so easily duped.
Several characters helpfully inform her that babies look different when they’re dead, which might have been enough to explain the pic’s ginormous plausibility leap had Bier chosen a more operatic style — the sort that emphasizes the big questions on offer here: Namely, who deserves to raise a child, and when (if ever) might it be considered reasonable to take a kid away from its birth parents? Instead, Bier’s approach — which benefits from subtle, rather than shaky handheld camerawork, as well as low-key mood-enhancing music and an icy, cool blue palette — reaches for the emotional truth within a situation that, while conceivable in a white-trash, Jerry Springer way, has too obviously been rigged from the get-go.
Compared with Andreas’ noble-crusader type, Tristan is made out to be a complete monster, screaming such threats as “If you scream again, I’ll slit your throat” at his g.f., and forcing her to shoot up when she wants to nurse. Though Lie Kaas breathes frightening intensity into Tristan’s part, the movie presents this one-dimensional characterization for the primary purpose of overturning it later, as if to say, who are we to decide?
“A Second Chance” is effectively a con job, designed first to trick audiences into rationalizing such an extreme act as stealing an endangered baby, then flipping the situation around to reveal how wrong-headed that decision was. However contrived, such emotional manipulations alone are not enough to sabotage a film. They are, after all, the very essence of moral dramaturgy, giving auds a chance to pose hypothetical questions that real life doesn’t always present so cleanly. But everything’s just a little too clean and pat in Jensen and Bier’s scenario. Instead of asking audiences to think, the movie seems to rely on their not thinking — at least, not very deeply, or else the plot holes, logic gaps and moral pitfalls would swallow the film up entirely.
The trouble is that Bier’s approach hinges on maintaining a certain illusion of relatability, but in order to sustain the conceit, the characters start to behave increasingly like puppets. After switching the babies, Andreas then proceeds to meddle in the resulting investigation at great risk of exposing himself — good for suspense, bad for believability. Meanwhile, his partner looks like a dummy for not picking up on the obvious clues that something is wrong.
Thematically speaking, “A Second Chance” falls right in line with Bier’s earlier work, trading in such ideas as hypocrisy, redemption and human beings’ ability to transcend stereotypes, all in the face of life-changing moral decisions. (Thomsen and Lie Kaas played the titular siblings in Bier’s “Brothers.”) The helmer has always been a bit heavy-handed in such explorations, but here, any ambiguity is flattened under the weight of the pic’s own preconceived ideas, so all that remains is a so-so thriller.