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In a Better World features a mayhem-causing lad
Sociopath in training
Nielsen makes a terrific rotten kid.
Nielsen makes a terrific rotten kid.

Like Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed and Harvey Stephens in The Omen, William Jøhnk Nielsen makes a terrific rotten kid. As angry Christian, Nielsen stars in the low-key Danish thriller In a Better World, which won the foreign-language Oscar this year. When he's not glowering, he's causing mayhem. The violent moments, and the suspenseful scenes that lead to them, make for fine cinema. But director Susanne Bier's film falters when it dabbles in psychology and, worse, class analysis.

A boy of about 10, Christian is the son of businessman Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). Christian's mother has just died, and he and Dad move into the palatial family estate. At his new school, Christian befriends a bullied kid named Elias (Markus Rygaard) - and sticks up for him by savagely attacking his tormentor. It's a serious incident, and the police get involved. But the headmaster has the boys shake hands and declares the matter closed.

My heart goes out to Elias, a lonely, delicate boy who glumly accepts the bullying. His parents, both doctors, have separated, and his father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), spends much time far away, working at a refugee camp in Africa.

The grotesque scenes in Africa are a counterpoint to placid Scandinavia. Again and again, Anton operates on patients grievously injured by a depraved strongman (Odiege Matthew) who cuts open pregnant women to determine the sex of their fetuses. I gather Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen are telling us that this brutality differs only in intensity from schoolyard bullying. Could be, though the conclusion of this subplot conveys a hopelessness for Africa that I don't accept.

Bier handles the boys' friendship with nuance. Elias becomes an acolyte of charismatic Christian, who is what my parents used to call a bad influence. Christian has a series of terrible ideas, including dangling his legs from the roof of a tall building. Elias adoringly goes along. After Anton is bullied by a thuggish auto mechanic, Christian gets his worst idea, which relates to some explosives he finds on the estate. Chaos follows.

It's a pretty gripping plot, but the film wraps it up more neatly than I would prefer. And I don't buy the premise. It's sad that these kids suffer grief and the effects of marital strife, but many children endure these traumas without becoming sociopaths. From a storytelling perspective, The Omen's explanation is much more satisfying: The devil made him do it.

I'm also unhappy with what the film implies about redemption, which is that the cycle of violence can be broken if the people involved are affluent Northern Europeans. If you fix cars for a living, or if you live in an African refugee camp, forget about it.

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