In A Better World is a film at conflict with itself. That conflict is then transferred to the audience, making them feel sympathy and revulsion all within a short period of time. IABW won the AA for best foreign film this year and certainly displays the chops of a champ but for my money Carlos (French mini-series released as a film domestically) and Incendies (Canadian production also in current release) are more involving.
But Sony Pictures Classics know their world cinema as demonstrated by their release slate from the last year that includes A Prophet, IABW, Incendies, and The Secret in Their Eyes among others. For whatever reason, In A Better World is opening exclusively at a theater in The Woodlands. I get it, people live in that vast northern suburb of Houston, and there are homes, stores and even movie theaters. In the time it takes your central Houston dwelling humble scribe to drive to The Woodlands I can be halfway to Austin. If I had a girlfriend in The Woodlands the drive would be the dealbreaker. You don’t open a film in Yonkers intended for the New York City crowd. That said, once again it’s obvious, Houston seems to be on the last stop on the railroad track of coolness as far as corporate programming from other cities.
In A Better World starts with a white doctor administering aid and medicine in a small African village. Eventually we shift to the doctor’s native Denmark, where this humanist is just another cog in the wheel in his hometown. His wife also a doctor and he are headed for divorce. His son, good natured and prone to being a bully magnet, has just become friends with the new kid, himself a bit of a loner. The story shifts to the new kid and his father.
The new kid doesn’t like the way his only friend is being harassed. The territory director Susanne Bier (Danish director whose American films include Things We Lost in the Fire.) steers the film at this point is past the cracked cement sidewalk of “give me your lunch money punk.” It’s more like Charles Bronson vigilante justice when the new kid, actually kind of a scrawny lad, brutally beats the bully in the school bathroom within an inch of his worthless life. IABW isn’t a horror film but I picked up a vibe about alienation and acceptance from Let The Right One In about this point. The two boys at this juncture hide their weapon (a knife) in the ceiling in the hallway and keep mum for most of the rest of the movie.
After another departure that makes a parable out of how even adults taunt each other the story shifts back to the doctor. Again he’s in Africa and forced by circumstances into confronting a local fat gang leader who kills native women for sadistic pleasure. Let me emphasize again IABW isn’t a horror or revenge film so much as a heavy duty family drama that just happens to include extraordinary scenes of violence. I’m still on the fence as to how the kid manages to make a pipe bomb, blow up a car and then get released on his own recognizance by the police.
— Michael Bergeron