Susanne Bier wants us all to know that bullying is bad and she’s willing to go to great lengths to make sure her message is heard. The Danish filmmaker’s dreary drama In a Better World paints a portrait of bullying that begins and ends in black-and-white territory, while managing to occasionally flirt with the gray area in between. The story tackles big themes like love, loss, and the grieving period that connects the two, always with the overarching fear of intimidation and oppression dominating the narrative. It’s dramatically meaty stuff and Bier manages to hit some engaging notes with her capable cast, but an overbearing approach ultimately suffocates the movie’s emotional potential.
When teenagers Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard) meet at school one day, they create a link between two storylines driven by familial pain. Christian is struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother and refuses to allow his frustrated father (Ulrich Thomsen) to aid in the process. Elias is watching his parents stand idly by as their relationship crumbles, while also missing his father (Mikael Persbrandt), who is often gone to offer medical help at a Sudanese refugee camp, and taking out his anger on his mother (Trine Dyrholm). Christian and Elias are already battling obstacles on common ground, so it takes very little time for them to spark up a friendship.
In the midst of all this, the bullying theme is introduced almost immediately, as Elias is routinely accosted (physically and verbally) by a gang of jerks led by the particularly nasty Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm). Christian sees this and decides to stand up for Elias. It doesn’t go well at first, but Christian insists on taking the upper hand and soon fashions himself as a sort of avenger who sees it as his duty to protect those who will not stand up for themselves. This includes Elias’ father Anton, who thinks that bullies are best ignored. His philosophy of avoiding conflict and refusing to fight counteracts the ideals of the increasingly dangerous Christian.
At this point, Bier has successfully established the central theme and presented two opposing viewpoints from which the theme can be explored. And with characters that are relatively engaging, a conflict that is relatable, and morality that is suddenly murky, In a Better World was on the verge of saying something potentially powerful and interesting about the consequences of both bullying and fighting back. It’s easy, after all, to root against a bully and Bier knows how to make the villains rotten enough to boil our blood and blur the lines between what is necessary and what is acceptable.
But then the story dips into absurdity, before plunging entirely into thick, inescapable syrup. Bier cannot resist the urge to hold our hand and reduce the main theme to something resembling a saccharine after-school special. It all suddenly becomes clear that the main goal of the narrative is to cheaply tug at heartstrings and ignore the potential complexity of the intersecting storylines. There are clues that hint at tear-jerking tendencies right from the start, but they’re often settled down by the presence of the characters and the deepening of the conflict. That grounding is all gone long before the movie has begun its tumble into the third act.
Most of the performances remain impressive enough throughout, although Nielsen cannot prevent Christian from transforming into a one-note character. He wears a single, simple expression that ends up as transparent as Bier’s intentions. The rest of the actors hold on as tightly as possible, but once the movie hits its most extreme sentimental low, there’s no turning back and no room left for them to provide meaningful meditation on the main theme. Bier, at this point — with ridiculously contrived dramatic elements — is only interested in extracting a few tears from her audience.
It’s all too overwrought to be honest and so In a Better World feels manufactured and emotionally rigid. The success of the movie’s earlier moments is completely diluted by the treacly tone that accompanies each conflict resolution later in the film. Bier only wants us to feel something on her terms, which merely serves to make the cogs of this machine more visible. She surely gets her message across, but the final impact is muted at best. Yes, bullying is bad, but isn’t this kind of heartstring-tugging nonsense a form of cinematic bullying on its own?