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The Dullness of Being Earnest

In a Better World is socially worthy—and utterly joyless.

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In a Better World’s Mikael Persbrandt and Trine Dyrholm.  

It’s easy to see why the Danish director Susanne Bier’s brutal drama In a Better World has its admirers, among them this year’s foreign-language Oscar voters. Like Bier, we all dream of living in a kinder, gentler world but are forced to contend with the barbaric behaviors of this one. We know that the quest for retribution destabilizes societies and poisons our souls. But we also know that bullies must be stopped. Bier dramatizes our ambivalence so earnestly that it’s tempting to give her awards rather than admit that the movie is a crushing bore.

Bier jumps back and forth between a town in Denmark and a refugee camp in Africa, the link being Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor who commutes. These seem like vastly different places—but are they really? Every so often, refugees drag in women who’ve been butchered by a local kingpin who likes to bet with his soldiers on the sex of unborn children. In Denmark, meanwhile, Anton’s nerdy son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is regularly menaced by schoolyard bullies, and once or twice, Anton gets slapped around by an ill-tempered local mechanic. To the dismay of the Africans, Anton will treat the murderous kingpin for a maggot-­ridden leg. To the dismay of his son and his son’s friend Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), he will refuse to punch the mechanic back. “He’s a jerk,” Anton explains to the appalled kids. “If I beat him up, I’m a jerk, too. What kind of world would we have?”

A decent B-movie world, anyway. Given the cartoonish evil of the predators, as subtly drawn as the scummy thugs in the average Sylvester Stallone picture, it’s hard not to see Anton as a simp and a wimp. But Bier drags out his not especially expressive inaction for nearly two hours while wishy-washy authority figures refuse to exercise their authority. As a counterpoint, she has Christian (ironic name alert!), who lost his mother to cancer and now, simmering with rage toward his impotent dad (­Ulrich Thomsen), refuses to turn the other cheek: He bashes bullies with steel bars and mixes up a bomb to make life hell for tormentors. In this sort of socially responsible movie, kids with explosives are bound to have accidents.

Bier’s dialogue is dull-witted, her scenario so neatly diagrammed it’s a wonder you don’t get an ethics supplement with your ticket. This is an Oprah movie. If I seem unusually derisive, it’s because Bier has taken an exploitation premise, slowed it to a crawl, and sprinkled in horrific atrocities. She only thinks she’s better-worldly.

Seeing everything early and refusing to watch any coming attractions, I often go into a movie with no idea of its premise, sometimes not even its genre. That’s a good way to approach Source Code, which for half its (brief) length is thrillingly disorienting. I’ll try not to orient you here, except to say it’s largely set on a Chicago commuter train and kind of like a Philip K. Dick rewrite of Groundhog Day, with each time loop (if it is a time loop—mum’s the word) offering the equally disoriented hero (Jake Gyllenhaal) another chance to correct for past mistakes and accumulate more data. Directed by Duncan Jones (Moon) from Ben Ripley’s screenplay, it’s a crackerjack ride, shot and edited for maximum discombobulation. Those who inexplicably convinced themselves that Matt Damon and Emily Blunt had romantic chemistry in The Adjustment ­Bureau should check out true heat, courtesy of Gyllenhaal’s unblinking baby blues and Michelle Monaghan’s irrepressible glow. Dick would love the paranoid setup and probably hate the cheat of a denouement. But it all goes by too irresistibly fast to call a time-out for disbelief.

In the spook chiller Insidious, the Saw guys join forces with the Paranormal ­Activity guys for some low-tech haunted-house high jinks with a patina of Poltergeist slickness. The thing is scary as hell when it’s all creaks and thumps and doors swinging open. Then come the explanations, the special effects, and the inevitable feeling of been-there-been-­bombarded-by-that. It’s gore-free, which means they spare your eyes but batter your ears. Fear not the r­eaper—only tinnitus.

In a Better World
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Source Code
Summit Entertainment. PG-13.

Insidious
Filmdistrict. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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