In A Better World (Haevnen) Directed by: Susanne Bier Cast: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen Running Time: 2 hrs Rating: R Release Date: April 29, 2011 (Portland)
PLOT: Anton (Persbrandt) works as a doctor at a refugee camp in Africa. He sees horrors every day, but isn't prepared for the same thing at home. When his son, Elias (Markus Rygaard) makes a new friend, violence seeps into his home life.
WHO'S IT FOR? People who like films that don't conform to expectations. Fans of unique and beautiful films.
EXPECTATIONS: Bier's 2003 Dogme film, Open Hearts, was really spectacular. I was hoping for something equally interesting.
ACTORS: Mikael Persbrandt as Anton: Caught between two worlds, Anton works as a doctor among victims in an unnamed war-ravaged country in Africa. When he returns to Denmark, he has the comfort of his sons, but is estranged from his wife, Marianne (Dyrholm). He's also the main confidant of his son, Elias. Persbrandt plays him as a man of peace, one who tries to step back from confrontation. But he also has a strength that allows him to stand up to a gun-toting warlord. Anton's a complex guy, but he feels real and fallible. It's a pretty great performance. Score: 9
Trine Dyrholm as Marianne: Marianne's an unhappy soul. She can't forgive her husband for what he's done, though she seems to still love him. She's fiercely protective of a son who's the victim of bullying at school, and she doesn't really like the one friend he has. She seems to be just barely holding it together as the movie starts. But don't let my description fool you, she never seems like a shrew, she's a vibrant woman in a bad place. I know it's a cliche to talk about an actress being real when she takes off her make-up, but I'm going there. Her face isn't totally bare, but she feels naked. Everything she experiences is written on her face. Seriously, these actors are awesome. Score: 9
Ulrich Thomsen as Claus: The father of Christian, Elias' new friend, Claus tries to be a good father to his son after his wife passes away. Unfortunately, Christian seems to blame him for his mother's death. As his son spirals down a path to violence, he seems unable to understand what's going on. Thomsen is an actor I've loved since his performance in The Celebration years ago. Unfortunately, most of the Hollywood stuff he's appeared in since has been crap, so it's nice to see him in a film worthy of his talents. In contrast to Elias' parents, Claus is very closed and remote. But Thomsen doesn't allow him to seem distant, he's a loving father who can't connect with his child. Score: 8
TALKING: The dialogue feels very natural. If someone told me the whole film was improvised, I'd believe them. Still, it was scripted so mad props to the screenwriter, Anders Thomas Jensen Score: 10
SIGHTS: The film's shot on video and mostly handheld, but that doesn't mean it isn't beautiful. The scenery helps, shuttling between the golden expanses of Africa and the lush beauty of a Danish summer, there's no shortage of pretty. The actors are all very photogenic, too, even in minimal or no make up. Score: 9
SOUNDS: All of the sound in the film happens within the world of the film. Ocean sounds, gun shots, children playing, there's nothing contrived about the soundtrack. It's perfect. Score: 9
BEST SCENE: There are several to choose from, but I'll pick the moment that Anton stands up to the warlord. It defines his special sort of strength.
ENDING: The film could have concluded in many different ways, I was really expecting at least one of the children to die. But the way things did wrap up was absolutely how it should have been.
QUESTIONS: Will Anton be going back to Africa after all he's been through, both there and at home? Will this movie teach kids how to make pipe bombs? Isn't Denmark supposed to be safe?
REWATCHABILITY: I'd love to see this again when it comes out on DVD.
Director Susanne Bier has a way with creating fully realized characters and well-rounded plots. Not only is In a Better World an entertaining film, it's also a really well-made film. Bier was previously involved with the Dogme 95 movement, a group of Danish (and foreign) filmmakers who followed a set of rules to move films away from the Hollywood sense of overproduction and make them seem more real. She's taken the best of that movement and uses it to make her characters and situations feel real. The cameras are handheld but not super shaky, you won't feel nauseous. It feels like watching a documentary that got unnaturally close to it's subjects. This is the first really great film of 2011.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10