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2

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Waste Land (2014)
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by Jay Seaver

"The case of the missing mystery."
2 stars

SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: One of the best sorts of mysteries plunges its detective into a world not his own, such that figuring out how this other culture works is an important part of finding the killer. Some sort of personal growth is nice too. The trouble with "Waste Land" is that it never offers much more than the plunge, and that never with the sort of depth that makes the lack of a compelling mystery or fleshed-out character arc less keenly felt.

It's got the making of all three: Brussels homicide detective Leo Woeste (Jérémie Renier) pulls the case of Lukengo, a 19-year-old Congolese man who is pulled out of the river with a couple of Nkonde statutes. The trail leads Leo and partner Johnny Rimbaud (Peter Van den Begin) to a collector and businessman named Géant who still has a mine in the former colony. In fact, all records indicate that Géant is still in the Congo at the time Leo meet with him. The investigation is affecting him in other ways, too - though he has promised his pregnant wife Kathleen (Natali Broods) that he would leave the force after this case, he's been feeling a strange pull towards Congolese mysticism from the start, and has been more attentive than usual to the victim's sister Aysha (Babetida Sadjo).

Leo sits squarely at the intersection of all that's going on here, and in the movie's favor, he is always interesting. The intense detective who is perhaps only able to weather what he sees on the job because he himself is a little off is a familiar character type, but in this case he is put together fairly well. There's a bit of paranoia to his depression, while scenes with his father quickly illustrate where his fear of admitting weakness comes from. Jérémie Renier plays Leo as seeming much more secure than he actually is, although it's a clear, well-essayed part to what he becomes as the case swallows him whole. It's a superior example of this sort of character, and Renier does him justice.

If only the film were using this for something! Captions indicating how far along Kathleen is in her pregnancy let the audience see exactly how many weeks pass with Leo not making any sort of visible progress on the case with the nature of that conversation he had with Géant more or less standing as unexplained magic or madness. For all that Leo becomes obsessed with the Nkonde, it never really serves to illuminate the case, Congolese culture, our Leo's specific issues. There is, perhaps, a potentially interesting subtext of the oppressed taking something back - family legend hold that Leo is a descendant of Emperor Leopold II via a trust with a peasant girl - but that is not much developed either.

This lack of a strong central story means a lot of other things don't so much go to waste but are stuck standing on their own rather than feeding into something greater. It's a great looking movie, for instance, with Menno Mans's cinematography giving the film an ever-encroaching darkness that enhance the hopeless feeling created by the lengthening time-jumps. Natali Broods and Babetida Sadjo are intriguing as Kathleen and Aysha, respectively suggesting wary experience and mysterious potential. Peter Van den Begin makes Rimbaud an interesting contrast to Leo, a seeming loose cannon who nevertheless avoids Leo's excesses in indulging his own. And there are a couple of scenes hinting at something supernatural that are genuinely creepy, including an opening that suggests a heck of a horror movie.

"Waste Land" wouldn't have to go that way to make for a more interesting movie, not would it necessarily have to devote more time to actually solving is central murder. The filmmakers probably have to put something more concrete than it has at its center to anchor the movie, because otherwise you get a lot of well-done scenes that don't add up to a story.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=27696&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/28/14 11:45:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2014 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 European Union Film Festival For more in the 2015 European Union Film Festival series, click here.

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