In the Danish segments, school bullying becomes a springboard for a larger inquiry into the origins of violent behavior. In Africa, the movie explores violence generated by the wanton abuse of power in a lawless society: A local tyrant -- referred to only as Big Man -- brutalizes villagers, sometimes cutting open the bellies of pregnant women to settle trivial bets about the gender of an unborn child.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a physician, provides the link between the Danish and African segments. A man of liberal conscience, Anton travels to Africa to minister to the poor. His wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), also a doctor, has assumed most of the responsibility for raising their two sons, one of whom (Markus Rygaard) is being bullied at school.
Anton and Marianne are newly separated, as a result of an affair Anton's had, but they still try to act in concert when it comes to their children. Though sometimes hampered by geographical distance, Anton's relationship with Elias seems tender and loving. And the kid clearly adores his father.
But Elias also responds to the overtures of a friend (William Johnk Nielsen), a new kid who has just lost his mother and who only recently moved to his grandmother's farm with his businessman father (Ulrich Thomsen). Thomsen's Christian responds violently to the bully most responsible for Elias' humiliation. A volatile mixture of anger and grief pushes Christian toward extremes, and Bier generates suspense about how far Elias will go in supporting his unforgiving pal.
After Anton returns from Africa, he attempts to teach Elias and Christian a lesson about the futility of violence. When he breaks up a playground fight, Anton gets crosswise with another father, an adult bully who knows he's in the wrong but insists that only he can tell his child what to do. Despite ample provocation, Anton refuses to fight the man, insisting that there's little to be gained from confronting the bully on his own terms. Christian can't accept such a "pacifist' approach. He thinks violence should be met with greater violence.
Throughout the movie, Bier creates situations that test her characters. At one point, Big Man suffers a severe leg wound, and asks Anton for treatment. Anton must grapple with a troubling ethical problem: Is he obligated to treat a man who has inflicted so much harm on others? Should he ignore the pleas of villagers who would be only too happy to see Big Man die?
The plot often feels as if it has been burdened by a need to illustrate such problems, but Bier does a lot right here, too. Anton's pain, Marianne's anger, Elias' loneliness, and Christian's fury all feel real; these elements may have been enough for any movie to handle without also wandering off to Africa, which (in truth) receives short shrift here.
Sometimes when a movie tries to do too much -- and this may be one of those cases -- it fails to do enough. Put another way: In casting such a wide net, Bier doesn't go deep enough. Full of promise and often absorbing, In A Better World winds up being too pat for a film that has dared so much.