Published Sep 05, 2014An ultra-dark psychological thriller set in a Belgian underworld of Congolese art dealers and occult rituals, Waste Land's muddled maelstrom of a story never quite builds into the cohesive, intoxicating film noir it aspires to be. Still, it's not without its sinister charms.
Brooding detective Leo Woeste (Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier) finds out his girlfriend is carrying what would be his first child (they already live with her five-year-old son) but is also considering an abortion, given that Leo's utter devotion to bleak homicides means he's already mostly absent from home. He vows to pull back from the harrowing cop grind, make more time for the family and confront those fatherhood fears head-on. At least, that's what this philandering man-child promises, but actions always speak louder than words, and the heady thrill of hunting down bad guys appears too great to resist.
Leo's screws really begin to come loose when he struggles to solve a Congolese-Belgian man's murder, which leads him to mystical black markets, snake rituals and an elusive ringleader nicknamed Géant. Of course, wherever there's an ominous code to crack, there's a femme fatale in a red dress moping around. In this case, sultry Aysha (Babetida Sadjo), the victim's sister, rapidly resorts to sexy times with Leo as a preferred outlet for her crippling grief. Ever dodging his responsibilities as father and partner, Leo pulls the ol' vanishing act on his pregnant girlfriend as he drowns himself in a pool of self-abuse in the company of his hedonistic squad, a coke-snorting, hard-partying bunch.
Edited into segments with title cards that simply announce how many weeks we're into the pregnancy, Waste Land's exploration of a would-be hero's colossal struggle to do the right thing both on and off duty cuts a few too many corners in its character development. While Renier is riveting as the bruised and battered Leo (in a warts-and-all turn reminiscent of Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone), the character's manic behaviour and single-minded obsession with the Congolese murder case never feel justified. Writer-director Van Hees is too expeditious in fleshing out Leo's dramatic descent, and the affair with Aysha feels both inorganic and tedious, not to mention a clear misstep in casting.
Still, Brussels is given a glorious film noir makeover, looking dreadfully unsettling in an opening montage full of zombified Belgians taking a late-night snooze in deserted urban spaces. The script's underlying critique of colonialism's after-effects, meanwhile, brings compelling, little-explored ideas to screen. It's just a shame they're lost amidst an excess of direct-to-video tropes.