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Movie review: 'In a Better World' (2.5 stars)

In a Better World

In a Better World

In A Better World
2.5 stars
Directed by Susanne Bier
Starring Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Nielsen
Rated R

“In a Better World,” winner of the Oscar for best foreign-language film, makes a vivid impression, but also a manipulative one. Set in Denmark and, now and then, at an African refugee camp, the film tracks the relationship between two boys: Elias (Markus Rygaard), the punching bag of a school bully, and Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), the new kid in town. With his choirboy looks, Christian is the last child you’d pin as a budding psychopath. When he takes revenge on the bully, though, by pummeling him with a bike pump and putting a knife to his throat, you realize there’s more to Christian than meets the eye.

After a local goon picks a fight with Elias’ father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), Christian takes it upon himself — enlisting Elias as well — to punish the goon. Noticing the boys’ itch for revenge, Anton implores them that violence only begets violence. (Of course, ever so predictably, he is forced to question his own wisdom during a violent encounter in an African refugee camp, where he works as a doctor.)

As one tense situation leads to another, the movie asks: Does violence have a place in the world? Director Susanne Bier takes a stab at this provocative question, exploring some shades of gray in the answer. All too quickly, though, her characters petrify into archetypes and the film adopts the less attractive qualities of a morality tale. The isolated Africa scenes, tonally incongruous with the rest of the film, seem to exist for the sole purpose of building up to a contrived, violent act that precipitates Anton’s moral crisis. Like “Crash,” another questionable Oscar-winner, it’s all too orchestrated, the message too facile.

“In a Better World” succeeds as a psychological thriller. The film is frequently harrowing, and the two child stars deserve kudos for developing a rapport that’s both tender and chilling. If only the film weren’t so desperate to send a message.

Playing at Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinemas


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