Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam’s movies tend to take the form of black comedies where doomed characters are trapped by bizarre circumstances. His last feature, the Cannes-acclaimed “Borgman,” took this tendency into the realm of abstraction, with the unsettling tale of a devilish presence who inserts himself into an upper class home and destroys it from the inside. Van Warmerdam’s latest effort, the riveting and very funny “Schneider vs. Bax,” takes a comparatively more traditional approach to turning domestic problems into a warped farce.
The plot is fairly straightforward: A pair of killers cope with their families and their targets at once. While more readily accessible, “Schneider vs. Bax” delivers the rare joy ride in which everything going wrong feels exactly right.
On the one hand, the premise unfolds in fairly basic terms, with the majority of the running time building to a showdown between two hit men unwittingly assigned to kill each other. But neither man is your typical gunslinger. As the movie begins, Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere, the father in “Borgman”) wakes up at his suburban home to celebrate his birthday with his wife and kids. The joyful morning comes to a halt when he receives a call from stern client Mertens (Gene Bervoets) with a last-minute job explained with fleeting matter-of-factness (“I promise you’ll be finished by noon,” Mertens says). Dropping an excuse to his clueless family, Schneider heads to Mertens’ office, where he’s told to track down the middle-aged writer Bax (van Warmerdam) at his wooden bungalow. Far from setting the stage, however, van Warmerdam is just getting started.
As the action shifts to Bax at his cabin, the reckless character quickly becomes the star of the show. Kicking out his young mistress to clear the way for a visit from his estranged daughter Francisca (Maria Kraakman), he welcomes the adult woman into his home — only to find her berating him for his cocaine habit and bursting into tears about her own troubled life.
In the meantime, Schneider hides in the nearby swamp and grows anxious about Bax’s company. His cover blown by a passing security guard, he heads out to find a new disguise, when he abruptly comes across a squabbling couple who offer just the right sort of cover. In the process, he winds up with a hostage named Gina (Annet Malherbe), who becomes his unwitting accomplice as he returns to stake out Bax’s home. Then comes the final piece of the twisted equation: Bax receives a call from Mertens about Bax’s imminent arrival. “I thought that was next week,” he mutters, as if talking about a doctor’s appointment, before lazily unwrapping his rifle.
The series of loopy circumstances keep piling up, though it’s Bax’s unruly ways that create the most enjoyably unpredictable turns. In a vain attempt to calm his manic daughter’s nerves, Bax offers her a joint. When his shifty father abruptly shows up, Bax gives him speed. While guzzling his own intoxicants, Bax keeps so many pills around that he can’t keep them straight, and pretty soon he’s stuck anticipating a shootout while trapped in a druggy haze.
Schneider drifts in and out of picture, though his own efforts include recurring intrusions from his domestic life (he receives a call from his wife about dinner plans while in the midst of wrestling with his hostage). As with Bax, he’s at once seemingly deranged and ordinary.
On some level, even the movie’s title contains a built-in irony. The main coup of the dueling narratives is that the women accompanying the men in each circumstance wind up taking better control of the situation than the hired professionals. But even they make a few priceless blunders that come at high costs. Eventually, blood spills — though not, initially, where one might expect. Imbued with ludicrous mischief worthy of the Coen brothers, “Schneider vs. Bax” is a dark comedy of errors in which everyone has a plan that somehow fails. Chaos is the source of every punchline.
At times, the highly improbable circumstances under which these two men and their companions advance towards a climactic encounter struggles from the all-too-obvious ways in which van Warmerdam keeps shaking up the plot. Yet the gleefully anarchic storytelling also provides a source of supreme tension. The drab color scheme underwhelms, but the filmmaker’s use of two different spaces for the main action — the constrains of Bax’s cabin and the vacant, swampy terrain surrounding it — pares down the scenario with gripping precision.
There’s a certain intrinsic absurdity to the premise, which promises an eventual confrontation even as the majority of the grim developments take place prior to it. After all that, the finale crumbles into a series of less-than-satisfying encounters. Without ruining the movie, the half-baked payoff is the weakest link. But even the shortcomings of “Schneider vs. Bax” speak to the sheer entertainment value of its suspenseful forward momentum, which is so marvelously engaging that no resolution could possibly match up.
“Schneider vs. Bax” premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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