Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a gifted doctor who commutes between his home in Denmark and a Sudanese refugee camp, where he treats the female victims of a sadistic man. Back home, he has a wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), but they are separated, and struggling with the possibility of divorce because of an affair that he had with another woman. They have two young sons, the older one being 12-year-old, Elias (Markus Rygaard). Elias is daily abused in school and easily makes friends with Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen), who has just moved from London with his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). The two boys take action against the bully that has been harassing Elias and Christian gives him a beating and threatens him with a knife. Brought to the police, they protect each other. Christian has just lost his mother to cancer and the relationship with his father is shaky. He hasn't come to terms with his mother's passing and channels all his anger towards making a bomb. Christian wants to place it under the car of a mechanic who has slapped Anton because their younger boys picked up a fight. Despite Anton's attempt to teach the boys a lesson about the futility of violence, Christian and Elias decide to go ahead with their plan, leading to the latter's injury in the explosion.
How excruciating is it for a parent to fail in teaching his sons the lesson of non-violence? Anton doesn't seem to succeed in convincing his sons that violence is not the answer but the weapon of ignorant, stupid people. Elias is rather fearful of losing the only friend he has so he accepts to get along with Christian's plan to blow up the mechanic's car. The film is really challenging in getting the viewer's immediate response: you feel like punching the discriminating mechanic for his violent choice. Or getting the other adults to react more firmly to the injustice around them. But, how can you measure a doctor's humanity? When he treats women cut-open for the sick fun of it or when he heals the sadistic brute who inflicted these wounds upon them? Can you lose sight of your moral principles in order to save a man's life? The director, Susanne Bier, questions the less pleasant sides of the truth and forces the viewers to question themselves whether they should turn the other cheek or strike back. It is all about the choices we make, regardless of the comfort of the civilised world or the poverty of the Sudanese refugee camp.
Another flawed aspect of our humanity that the movie deals with is the way we respond to great losses; it is with such honesty that the director portrays Christian's pain caused by the death of his mother and his violent reaction towards his father. He blames him for the sorrow and shuts him down, no matter how hard the father tries to ease his pain. All actors, especially the children, are very persuasive and talented and they make the story seem accurate and real. It is not like the movie is trying to trick us into believing that everything is going to be fine and that all you need is love; on the contrary, it is a case of good love turning sour as it is not always enough to be a loving parent to raise a happy, sane child. All characters, adults and children, lose something in the movie, whether it is their innocence, their faith, their dreams or their loved ones. It is how they deal with their loss and how they come to terms with their own limitations that really matters.
Susanne Bier's "Things We Lost in the Fire" and her Danish and American versions of "Brothers," are sensitive movies that focus on the inner feelings of characters and the way they react in unexpected situations and the winner of 2011's Oscar as best foreign-language film, In a Better World, is also an emotional movie about our frail, flawed, humane, conflicting nature.