For this year's Portland International Film Festival I was assigned two movies I was particularly excited about: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Alex de la Iglesia's fabulously bonkers The Last Circus. On the day I was going to see Uncle Boonmee timeslots got switched around and I ended up seeing something called In a Better World (a Danish film originally titled Haeven). I was disappointed to miss out on Boonmee, which I'd heard nothing but great things about, but whatever. I watched In a Better World and it was fine. I wrote a short blurb and was done with it.
Until last night when In a Better World won the Oscar. To which my response was "Whaaa??" (followed by "Why am I watching the Oscars?"). Here's what I originally wrote:
This Danish flick about two damaged adolescent boys and their families reminded me of Paul Haggis' Crash. It tackles a big issue (the nature and consequences of revenge) but does so bluntly, with too many characters, too many subplots, and a handful of affecting scenes. World has both the power to make you cry and put you to sleep.
Since my original PIFF blurb was capped at fifty words I'd like to say a few more things about In a Better World below the cut. I'll try and keep the spoilers to a minimum.
First, what is In a Better World actually about? Well, it's hard to sum up. (It's even harder to put into a fifty-word blurb that's also a review). It begins with Anton, a doctor in a Sudanese refugee camp fixing broken legs and getting sweaty. There's also a nasty upswing of assaults on pregnant women at the hands of a rebel leader who looks a lot like Idi Amin. Every day Anton drives to and from his hospital tent in the bed of a jeep while little boys chase the truck, scrambling for the soccer balls that he will throw out the back at them.
After about ten minutes of that we switch to a funeral. Christian (the hawk-faced boy with the Bieber sweep pictured above) is reciting a poem over the casket of his mother, who has succumbed to cancer. Afterwards, his father, Claus, tries to talk to him. "Get out of my face dad! It's your fault she's dead! I'm mad that we're moving to the country!" Christian says (as I remember it).
After about ten minutes of that, we cut to Christian's first day at his new school where he sees a boy his age, Elias, getting bullied by some popular turd with bleached tips. The turd is calling Elias "rat-face!" He's letting air out of his bike tires! Despite the social suicide it brings Christian defends Elias and sparks a close friendship with him. Anton, we soon discover (although not soon enough), is Elias' sometimes-absent father who travels to Africa for months at a time. Anton is going through an impending divorce with his wife.
What you have here is the beginnings of three decent, oh-so prestige-y movies. When you put them all together You get one long, muddled mess of a prestige-y movie. And it just keeps growing! Once all of that is established - so, about forty minutes in - writer/director Susanne Bier steers her collection of characters into following a greater story arc on the nature of violence and revenge. Elias and Christian make bad decisions, parents on both sides struggle to connect with their children while battling their own demons and sometimes we take a Sudanese vacation to check in on the pregnancy ripper and learn about forgiveness.
In my blurb I compared In a Better World to Crash. Like that other Oscar winner, Better World has some moments that really work. This is a heartfelt film that really is striving to say something (a lot of somethings. Too many somethings) about the human condition. There's just way too much of it. In a Better World feels so long that it tries your patience but it's not long enough to really do justice to everything it wants to. Something Crash doesn't get credit for is that it's at least on-point; it knows its thesis and it sticks to it. This movie doesn't. Mess though it is, I guess I'm not surprised In a Better World resonated with the Academy. It has that "We're looking at big issues here" bravado with the pillowy, life-affirming payoff at the end: "Life can be pretty complicated... but it sure is great!"
I haven't seen some of the other films that were nominated for "Best Foreign Language Film" this year, but I feel confident in saying this: 2004 will be remembered for films like Brokeback Mountain, The New World and Good Night and Good Luck, not Crash. The following three minutes from Dogtooth are more memorable than In a Better World in its entirety.