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In A Better World

[Rating: 2/5]

“In A Better World” won both the Golden Globe and Academy awards for best foreign film last year, so it certainly has its fans.   But to me, it feels like a film trying far too hard to say Important Things about Important Issues.   While watching it, I was reminded of my freshman year Creative Writing class: all of us trying so hard to say Something, none of us yet aware of what it was we had to say.  My sympathies go out to Creative Writing teachers everywhere. Mikael Persbrandt plays a Swede living in Denmark but working as a doctor somewhere in Africa.  That’s a lot of displacement.  He’s also estranged from his wife because he cheated on her. His son gets bullied at school until he meets newcomer William Johnk Nielsen, who beats the bully with a tire pump and then threatens him with a knife.  In Africa, Persbrandt has to deal with grownup bulles: he is constantly sewing up people injured by the local warlord and his gang.  He wants to teach his son that violence is not the right way to solve problems, but his son finally has a friend, who solves his problems with violence.

The boys decide to build a bomb. The warlord comes to the doctor in need of medical aid.  Quandaries abound, but none of them feel organic to the story or the characters; none of them feel like they’ve arisen from the circumstances organically.   At every point “In a Better World” feels like its writers started with what they thought would be a compelling situation, then wrote their way backwards into a story to justify that situation.  This is the wrong way to go about things.

Movies that accomplish what “In A Better World” strives so hard to accomplish do so by starting with well-realized characters, and then following them until something interesting happens to them.  If your characters are good, something interesting will inevitably happen to them.   Instead, in this film, the characters feel contorted into their situations, or they just don’t feel real at all.  They are tortured plot devices, insignificant instruments in the service of a greater moral; an Important Thing to Say.  That’s a fatal flaw, and one all aspiring writers must take to heart: it doesn’t matter how profound or powerful your thesis is, if you take shortcuts in your storytelling to get to that point, it won’t come across the way you want it to.  “In A Better World” feels preachy and fake.

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