When a piece of art is a collection of many different inspirations, the outcome depends greatly on the quality of the source material and the overall interpretive nature of the artist. Pieter Van Hees’ film Waste Land can easily be recognized as an anthology of inspiring works; from David Fincher’s filmography (most notably Fight Club), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the shorts of T.S. Elliot, Cliff Martinez and his innovative scores in Refn’s Only God Forgives and Drive, and of course, Refn himself. With this plethora of source material, you would think that Waste Land would be an astounding masterpiece. Instead, the film simply does a poor job of rehashing excellence. With a brisk runtime of under one-hundred minutes, the film plays out like an elongated saga of confusion, repetition and grim subject matter that makes the content darker than it really should be.
At the heart of the film, lies Leo Woeste (Jérémie Renier), a homicide detective who gets engulfed in an unsolved murder case that leads him to a mystery underworld of ancient African artifacts and deities. Set in Brussels, Leo is the heart and soul of the film, even if he grapples with a lose sense of reality, often confusing it for the fragments of fantasy and imagination in his head. Renier, who depicted Bruno in the Palme D’Or winner L’Enfant in 2005, does the best that he can playing a detective whose world crashes to pieces once his girlfriend Kathleen (Natali Broods) shares the news that she is expecting their first child together. Once the news settles with Leo and he digests the reality of his dream of becoming a father, despite Kathleen’s son from a previous relationship, Leo promises to quit his grim career as homicide detective for a much more positive line of work within the police department.
Leo’s skills as a father are questioned early in the film. From the beginning scene of taking Katrien’s five year-old son to a barren part of town, to shoot a gun no less, to his constant abandonment of his family, Van Hees does a poor job of providing a compelling case for Leo as a “good” father. There aren’t any doubts that Van Hees’ film is one that deals with the scary nature of fatherhood, the large pressure of being an adequate patriarch and the unnerving reputation a man must make to be a substantial role model. To much dismay, Van Hees’ screenplay does a wonderful, unintentional job of shadowing his main commentary with a heavily racial commentary of the Belgian class system.
Plunging into a criminal underworld populated by the large Congolese numbers inhabiting much of Belgium, Leo is forced to fight against his fears of becoming a dad with the unsettling criminal underworld of the death of a young Congolese-Belgian boy. Such with any great noir, it isn’t until Leo meets the victim’s older sister Aysha (Babetida Sadjo), that our unconventional femme fatale tempts Leo’s limitations as a family man and loyal husband.
While Waste Land strives at great lengths to be a neo-noir psychological thriller with dark cinematography courtesy of über talented Menno Mans as well as the ominous score, the film becomes more of a drowsy descent into forgettable thriller territory.
The camera spends too much time stylistically out of focus, but in the hands of another director, this stylistic effect could work. Muddled and purged into a dark and decrepit world of dirty cops who indulge in way too many drugs, alcohol and women, the hard-edged perspective of the Belgian police force Van Hees is trying so hard to exposed is forgotten.
Waste Land affirms that evil consumes eventually and fears may very well come alive for the people who seem strongest. Leo is a fine example of someone who spirals way out of control into the abyss of his own fears and the darkness he exposes himself to.
The film treads the fine line of what Van Hees is truly interested in, which is creeping slowly and wandering into the mythos of the Congolese-Belgian subculture. Much like the Indian subculture that is obviously apparent in England today, Van Hees’ Waste Land shows a very one-sided and often times very stereotypical dark shade of the underworld and underground trade of African idols. Violent and bloody, Waste Land’s enigmatic yet animalistic take on a once moral and sternly ethical man is explored with dissatisfying results.
Throughout Waste Land, the steady and slow descent into the self-induced fear of humanity and mankind is one that is depressing and dark, despite stylistic redemption and massive potential by the cast and crew. Van Hees’ Waste Land tries its hardest to be an ode to so many films and inspirations before it, yet, the film is nothing more of a dumping ground for ideas and images done better before, despite the best efforts of everyone involved.
Night Film Reviews: 2 Out of 10 Stars.
What did you think of Waste Land? Dark and dirty cop movie with some merit or a film as hollow as a dumpster? If you haven’t seen Waste Land yet, interested? Or turned off? Leave all your thoughts and comments below!