Waste Land (Pieter Van Hees, 2014)
Waste Land screens at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, March 7 and Thursday, March 12. For additional ticket information, please click here.
Pity the Belgian Tourist Office. Between being the site for sex covens (Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac), the setting for the Dardenne Brother’s scathing social critiques (The Kid With the Bike and Two Days, One Night) and now Pieter Van Hees’ surreal True Detective-esque murder mystery Waste Land, one can’t help but dwell on the oppressive qualities of a place like Brussels. Hees’ Waste Land is a primary offender though. It’s here where Brussels is visualized as a toxic nightmare-scape, where mysterious voodoo practices threaten children, leaving a lowly detective to piece together the origins of a crime that are far beyond his capacities.
An opening title card notes “five weeks”. We soon find out what we’re five weeks into: Leo’s (Jérémie Renier) girlfriend is pregnant. Leo’s a Belgian detective in homicide and with the news of his girlfriend’s pregnancy, he figures that it may be time to leave the department. He has one major case left though and as you would expect, it’s not going especially well.
To suggest that Waste Land is indebted to True Detective would be a mistake because the two were in production at the same time. But there’s no denying that the two share some intriguing similarities, though it’s clear that Hees’ film is a valiant but misguided experiment. His framing device, utilizing Leo’s wife’s pregnancy, would have been a successful tool in amplifying tension as it becomes clear that Leo is losing his grip with reality. But Hees fails to make a notable connection between Leo’s domestic and work life, instead emphasizing a more nightmarish and surreal journey into police obsession.
A film that tracks the procedural obsession of a dark and twisted mystery would be welcoming, especially if it’s cut from the same cloth as the aforementioned True Detective or David Fincher’s Zodiac, but then again Hees does not establish a context for normality. From the onset we bare witness to an absurdly morose and downtrodden community painted in hues of gray – the film proceeds to get darker and more miserable.
The fundamental issue here is Hees’ structural and narrative faults. Why utilize a framing device yet fail to include the domestic sphere of Leo’s relationship? If this is a film about the obstacles in accepting fatherhood, and the subsequent fears that come with being a provider, why utilize such a racially charged and absurd voodoo element? Separate narrative threads, including self-mutilation and supernatural oddities, amount to little, if anything at all. In the realm of police procedurals, the necessity to stand-out is a given obstacle for a filmmaker, but with Waste Land, that desire to stand out reaffirms that perhaps there’s a reason why something like this hasn’t been done before.