Relentlessly paced, with the volatile ferocity of a rabid pitbull, “Schneider vs. Bax” is, above all else, pretty damn funny. That’s if you’re into Alex van Warmerdam‘s distinctive brand of humor. He strikes me as the kind of surgeon who would wear a clown nose while preforming a life-or-death operation, just to lighten up the mood in the room. It’s this kind of dark, caustic drollness that takes center stage in the Dutch director’s absurd comedy of errors about two hitmen pitted against one another. More playful, but less compelling, than his previous film — the endlessly engrossing “Borgman” — this latest picture won’t make too many lasting impressions, but it’s a helluva ride in the moment.
TIFF Review: ‘Borgman’ Director Alex Van Warmerdam’s Relentless, Volatile, And Damn Funny ‘Schneider Vs. Bax’
TIFF Review: 'Borgman' Director Alex Van Warmerdam's Relentless, Volatile, And Damn Funny 'Schneider Vs. Bax'
It’s Tuesday, and Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) is awakened by his lovely wife Lucy (Loes Haverkort) and two young adorable daughters singing him “Happy Birthday.” He barely gets a word in edgewise before his handler Mertens (Gene Bervoets) calls with the latest assignment, one that he absolutely must complete today, no questions asked. The target is Ramon Bax (van Warmerdam); novelist, alcoholic, child killer. Schneider begrudgingly accepts, even though it’s his day off. Besides, the job sounds easy enough; get near the summer house where Bax is staying by himself, get a clear shot with the sniper rifle from the adjoining field, and get home before the party guests arrive. It gets all deliciously complicated, though, because Bax is having a really, really bad day. Not only must he kick out his young girlfriend so that his estranged daughter Francisca (Maria Kraakman) doesn’t see her, but he gets buzzed on a cocktail of weed, alcohol, and speed right before Mertens gives him a call to confirm his latest assignment; he must kill Schneider, and it has to be today.
The film may be a shrug-of-the-shoulder in terms of weighty storylines and complex characters, but van Warmerdam’s exciting screenplay, and Job ter Burg‘s eccentric editing, keep “Schneider vs. Bax” engaging via its sheer unpredictability. Examples that come to mind include Mertens’ phone calls to both Schneider and Bax, which hilariously pile one new absurdity atop another, and Bax’s inability to get a handle on his day — his daughter’s nervous breakdown, his father’s surprise visit, the girlfriend who comes back with her “tough guy” friend Jules (Bart Harder). Arguments over muesli and debates over disguises are just some of the crafty exchanges that highlight the hilarity. Even the film’s aesthetic becomes a joke; literally anything that could be white, is white. Houses, walls, clothes, suitcases, even the sky emphasizes the paleness of its blues. It’s another prank from van Warmerdam, who loves his dark undercurrents charged beneath as pure a surface as possible.
Much as one enjoys getting sucked into the plot, even with its most artificially convoluted moments, by the time it ends one’s left feeling a bit nonplussed. Any attempts at emotional attachment get lost due to the bonkers storyline, mostly felt with Francesca designed to be the emotional center. Her sporadic personality, unfortunately, doesn’t leave much room for us to care. Just the idea of “caring” feels like swimming against the film’s current. And on more than one occasion, van Warmerdam’s methods of engaging his audience are too transparent to be effective. Who is really going to believe Schneider when he threatens Gina (van Warmerdam regular Annet Malherbe) with an ankle bracelet bomb?
The film is too busy getting tangled in its plot to throw any proper emotional punches or hit home with themes of bad parenting and dangers beyond closed doors. But it’s not lacking in entertainment, that’s for sure. Alex van Warmerdam knows all too well just how instantly rewarding it is to follow a narrative driven by misinformation and incompetence. And sometimes that’s all you need to have a good time. [B]