Film tells powerful story despite lackluster ending

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As far as Academy Award categories go, Best Foreign Language Film is always a hard one to call.
It’s hard to tell if the Academy will decide to award a bold narrative coming from a fresh perspective or a more traditional, Oscar-bait film that happens to have subtitles. “In A Better World” is a little of both, telling a compelling, disturbing story in a very classical and deliberate way before arriving at its lackluster ending.
It’s unclear where the film is going for most of its first act. Newly motherless preteen Christian (played by William Nielsen) befriends outcast Elias (Markus Rygaard) who is often picked on. Christian decides to stand up for his friend and proceeds to beat a bully with a bike pump and hold a knife to his throat.
Thus begins a sprawling meditation on the nature of violence, which also manages to drag in Elias’ father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who spends much of his time in Africa. As both Elias and Anton find their moral codes shaken by the angry, vengeful Christian, the film turns into a ticking time bomb, building to an epic tragedy of an ending.
Unfortunately, the film’s final moments are disappointingly toothless, ending with a whimper instead of the bang the audience has been expecting. It also turns distressingly literal, spelling out everything the audience already knows about the characters and their motivations.
Even if the film’s ending does fall flat, there’s a lot in the build-up that’s very much worth watching. Nielsen gives an absolutely chilling performance as a very damaged little boy, a debut on the level of Hailee Steinfeld’s performance in last year’s “True Grit.” Nielsen runs the film and is so convincing in his warped worldview that it’s easy to believe Anton would be affected by it.
Persbrandt’s Anton is a similarly great character, and while he spends much in the film in his own little overseas medical drama, Persbrandt is just as good negotiating with menacing African drug lords as he is with spending time with his son.
In the hands of a lesser director, the film’s multinational narrative might have seemed disjointed, but director Susanne Bier’s confident presentation ties the film together easily. Bier stages several unshakable moments of harsh brutality, often involving children, but always makes them feel organic to the story and the three-dimensional, fascinating characters.
Thanks to a few great performances and an engrossing story, “In A Better World” is a solid film. While its flat ending keeps it from being the best nominee in this year’s Best Foreign Language Film category (an honor that goes to the riveting “Incendies”), it’s a film well worth checking out.