"In a Better World" demonstrates Danish director Susanne Biers' supreme gift at telling the gloomiest of stories that, while not exactly winding up in feel-good territory, at least finish with a strong affirmation of the decent things in life.
Last month's Academy Award winner for foreign-language film, "In a Better World" is a provocative drama though not really Bier's best work (her 2004 family saga "Brothers" and her 2006 Oscar nominee "After the Wedding" are superior films).
Still, "In a Better World" is a beautifully performed and meticulously constructed chronicle of two families making the sort of distressing moral choices few of us, thankfully, ever must face.
The film flits a bit too conveniently between violence at an African refugee camp and the supposedly more restrained, civilized conflict resolution at a tranquil town in Denmark, where two misfit boys escalate a campaign against bullies and brutes to a harrowing level.
Elias (Markus Rygaard) is a big-hearted boy tormented and friendless at school until the arrival of Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a sullen youth who has just moved to the area with his father after his mother's death from cancer.
Angry at the whole world, Christian savagely puts a stop to the hounding Elias endures from classmates. The two become such close and immediate friends that they blindly enable each other in a dangerous revenge plot against a grown-up bully.
What develops is an extreme and not-altogether credible scenario, a frequent trait of Bier and screenwriting collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen's films. Like their other films, though, "In a Better World" wonderfully presents people in terrible crisis.
The African connection comes through Elias' father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who travels back and forth from Denmark to a refugee camp where he faces his own ethical dilemma over a bestial warlord preying on the locals.
Anton and his wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), are separated and considering divorce but do their best to maintain a normal family life for Elias and his younger brother.
Christian's home life is tougher. He blames his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), for his mother's death, and he cruelly rebuffs any overtures his dad makes to close the gap between them. His rebelliousness and bravado become an irresistible attraction for the lonely, impressionable Elias.
The performances are superb, with Rygaard and Nielsen particularly impressive in creating the sense of desperate dependency that drives the boys to a kind of madness.
Bier and Jensen aim to show that the beast lurks even in the most serene settings, yet the parallels between the film's two worlds grow heavy-handed. There's a very good film in the relationships among Elias, Christian and their families, without the interludes of discord in Africa. Had those sequences been dropped, "In a Better World" might have been an even better drama.
"In a Better World"
The Sony Pictures Classics release is rated R for violent and disturbing content, some involving pre-teens, and for language. Running time: 118 minutes.