Each year, among cranky film snobs who actually deign to pay attention to the Oscars — or cop to it, anyway — few categories cause conniptions as seismic as Best Foreign Language Film. Stationed in a netherworld we can only describe as "middlebrow esoterica," these films are generally ignored by the mainstream audiences they seem calculated to attract. Meanwhile, to hardened cinephiles, the films that make it through the Academy's bizarre tontine of a balloting process appear to be the ones gruel-thin enough to offend the fewest people. If they actually please anyone, it's a small subset of liberal milquetoast filmgoers who flatter themselves and their college degrees by sitting through what are, essentially, the Ron Howard or Lawrence Kasdan films of other lands.
Needless to say, this isn't entirely fair — and not just because every once in a while, a wild card like last year's Dogtooth sneaks in. Not only does this view represent a willful misrecognition of just what the Oscars are for (as opposed to, say, the Cannes Film Festival), it also fails to account for the necessarily positive effects of American audiences engaging with subtitled films and non-English speaking actors, as well as cultural and historical frameworks not their own. Whatever their shortcomings as movies, at least films like The Lives of Others or The Secret in Their Eyes place their drama within the context of the century's major events, organizing their moral choices around the flashpoint at which human psychology and world history collide.
And then there's something like Susanne Bier's film In a Better World, which won the 2010 Foreign Language Oscar, is from Denmark, and in its own way attempts to portray a kind of history of the present. That it fails miserably, and that it jettisons comprehensible character motivation in favor of soap-opera theatrics and knee-jerk stereotype, makes it precisely the sort of pandering, half-baked entry that lends credence to the Oscar-haters' worst accusations. Ostensibly a global bulletin on the hot topic of bullying, which has been taken more seriously of late with the rise of Internet stalking and savage attacks on ostracized gay teens, In a Better World expands the idea of "bullies" with a forced elasticity, stretching it until it has no meaning whatsoever.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor working in Kenya, patching up victims of a vicious warlord. Meanwhile, his son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is relentlessly tormented at school, beaten and nicknamed "Ratboy." He soon meets new student Cristian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), whose mother has just died of cancer. He's scrapping for a fight, and begins his friendship with Elias by beating the crap out of his main persecutor with a bicycle pump. Meanwhile, Christian incongruously blames his seemingly benign father (Danish film stalwart Ulrich Thomsen) for his mother's demise. Before long, the kids are exploring just what to do with their rage, with Elias the sensitive one following along with Cristian the angerbomb.
Dogme 95 veteran Bier, whose films have always tended toward the emotionally expulsive (she made the original Brothers, along with the transplant drama Open Hearts), foregoes the logic of who these characters actually are. All are upper-middle-class professionals, but never is it suggested, for instance, that Christian see a grief counselor. Instead, In a Better World uses the father-son relationships, as well as other male-male confrontations (e.g., liberal Anton's refusal to fight back when a macho auto mechanic attacks him on the street) to pick at tired cultural scabs regarding what constitutes a "real man." She and her screenwriter, the ubiquitous Anders Thomas Jensen, have nothing insightful to say on the topic, and so all they can do is pile more and more extreme incidents on top of each other — a form of macho escalation in itself.
Bier joins them together with contemplative clichés — fast-moving clouds, scattering flocks of birds, and the dusty, smiling children of Africa. Meanwhile, the real questions of why the strong exploit the weak are left aside. In a way, then, the film's English title is accurate in its forlorn shoulder-shrug: "In a better world, none of this would happen, but ..." The film's original Danish title, Hævnen, speaks more honestly to what Bier and Jensen have on their minds. It means "revenge."