The line between seen and unseen threats is a prominent theme in Pieter Van Hees’s 'Waste Land'. What begins with a straight-shooting yet violently impulsive detective’s routine murder investigation quickly jumps down a rabbit hole into dark, trippy cultural mysticism.
So what does it mean for a film to convincingly depict The Unseen – particularly a hard-boiled police procedural, a genre which has left little unseen? Decades of cinema technique have concluded that the world is a dark and scary place even for cops. Van Hees has ideas of colonialism and national reckoning on his mind, depicted via a color palette of blacks and blood.
Jérémie Renier plays a good cop named Leo whose ancestor, it is rumored, was Belgium’s Leopold II, and as he investigates the murder of a Congolese immigrant, this purported link to his country’s Congo-destroying past looms in the background. He also finds himself caught in an underground market for statuettes with mystical powers. They can bring great power but cause great pain, a fact Van Hees illustrates with grainy VHS footage of some bloodletting ritual. Or perhaps the terror of the film is not grand enough to exist outside of Leo’s head: A Kurtz-like Belgian businessman emerges from the shadows visible only to him. As Leo’s sanity falters, the film considers the personal, the spiritual, and the political without ever quite crossing them into a thesis. But it is precisely in the cross-section of all these elements where The Unseen must lie in waiting.
The Young Critics Workshop is organized in cooperation with Photogénie.