‘Waste Land’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
An overtly dark Belgian thriller whose stylistic flourishes can’t compensate for an otherwise sketchy story

Jeremie Renier (“The Kid with a Bike”) stars in Pieter Van Hees’ Toronto-bound thriller

Brussels may not exactly be a Waste Land, as per the title of Belgian writer-director Pieter Van Hees’ latest movie, but it certainly look likes one in this overtly dark and creepy policier set in the city’s Stygian urban backwaters. Something like The Serpent and the Rainbow by way of Gaspard Noe, this brooding tale of murder, misery and deadly African juju is more stylish than substantial, even if Dardennes Bros. regular Jeremie Renier gives a committed performance as a detective trying to crack his final case without cracking up himself. Better than your average cop thriller, but fairly overblown as well, the film should see some pickups in Europe while landing overseas in genre fests, midnight movie slots and on select ancillary networks.

Leo (Renier) is a hardcore homicide investigator who’s way more addicted to his job than to his marriage, especially now that his wife (Natali Broods) is unexpectedly pregnant. Rather than spending time in Lamaze class, where he shows up one evening to make everyone else miserable, Leo digs shoulder deep into his latest case, which involves a Congolese teenager whose body washed up in a garbage bag along the Zenne.

A set of clues leads Leo and his delirious coke-fiend partner (Peter van den Begin, The Fifth Season) into the heart of Brussels’ immigrant underworld, as the two track a powerful dealer in tribal statuettes who keeps eluding them, and who starts popping up in Leo’s nightmares. Only the victim’s beautiful sister (Babetida Sadjo) serves as an anchor to the detective’s fledging sanity, which begins to crumble under the weight of pressures both personal and professional, not to mention all that badass voodoo.

Billed as the third part in the director’s portentously titled “Anatomy of Love and Pain” trilogy (whose first installment, Left Bank, starred Mathias Schoenaerts), the film clearly takes notes from Noe, as well as from Bruno Dumont, David Fincher and fellow Belgian Fabrice Du Welz (Alleluia), painting an extremely bleak portrait of a city plagued by crime, pollution and what seems like a record stretch of overcast weather. It’s definitely stylistic overkill, with nary a sequence containing a ray of sunlight or hope, but it’s also well-realized and aesthetically potent, thanks in a large part to the gloomy widescreen images of cinematographer Menno Mans.

Where Waste Land doesn’t quite work is in a story that schematically heads to familiar places (an overworked cop in over his head, the wife who loves him against all odds, etc.) even if the African expat setting provides an unusual ethnic backdrop, especially during a kinetic wrestling match between dueling tribesmen. But the world depicted is also rather one-dimensional, and loses interest as Leo begins to lose his mind, culminating in a deflated finale that lacks the suspense of the opening.

The hardworking Renier (who also appears in the underrated French film The Great Man, playing in Toronto’s Discovery section) is nonetheless engaging enough to carry the viewer through to the end, offering up an obsessively twitchy turn that never gets too outlandish despite the madness surrounding him. He plays a guy who’s far from stable, yet remains one of the more sturdy elements in a movie that ultimately slides off the deep end.

Production company: Epidemic
Cast: Jeremie Renier, Natali Broods, Babetida Sadjo, Peter van den Begin
Director, screenwriter: Pieter Van Hees
Producers: Eurydice Gysel, Koen Mortier
Director of photography: Menno Mans
Production designer: Geert Paredis
Costume designer: Catherine Marchand
Editor: Nico Leunen
Composer: Simon Lenski
Sales: Be for Films

No rating, 97 minutes

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