You’ll know the image when you see it. We’re in an impoverished Third Word desert (the geographic specifics rarely register with much force), positioned on the back of a pickup truck or some other vehicular vantage point by which to observe the foreign landscape around us. The camera comes to rest just behind the automobile, where a large group of little black children have begun to run after the car. They shout and wave as they sprint after us, their guileless gesticulations slowly fading into the dusty distance as we speed away. How innocent they look as they scamper about behind us, so enlivened to be chasing after something so rudimentary to our (presumably First World) eyes! And how poignant for us, to see their cherubic faces alight with excitement right as we exit their assuredly dark and difficult lives! Childlike wonder and privileged guilt all swirled into one trailer-ready moment: how complicated it all is!
If its latte-liberal sigh of a title didn’t immediately clue you in, In a Better World prominently displays such an image early on, situating its tale of cross-border woe within a dubious vein of moist-eyed cinematic condescension—one that has plagued the art-house for generations but has come to the forefront in recent years thanks to such “socially conscious” auteurs as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Paul Haggis. Director Susanne Bier doesn’t scoop through the sociopolitical muck with as much covert relish as, say, Iñárritu’s Babel (whose “passion of the Mexican maid” sections stand as some kind of leering low point in the current vogue of globalized misery porn), but she shares its penchant for constructing representative tableaus over on-the-ground narrative scenarios. Scenes of conflict cannot merely explore the interpersonal dynamics of those characters on screen. They must expand out into capital-S Symbols of the underlying moral/spiritual forces that plague contemporary existence. A thrown punch or hurled epithet is never just itself in a film like In a Better World, but the key to understanding What Is Wrong with the World Today™. Read Matt Connolly’s review.