“The Shadow Walkers” is both tantalizing and frustrating. Weighing how life’s routine realities can be as disconcertingly complex as they are numbingly simple , Dutch newcomer Peter Dop lays the foundation for a film that never fully develops. Despite its stunted, overly cerebral nature, this eccentric exercise’s assured tone and intriguing incidental tics should stoke expectations for the writer/director’s next outing.
Two brothers, Leen and Albert (Pierre Bokma, Aat Ceelen), meet nightly to slip into the shadows and tail folks at random around the small town where they live, observing a behavioral spectrum that melds the ordinary with the bizarre. Passing the same tableaux day after day, they note both momentous and subtle changes in the subjects they scrutinize with amused satisfaction and expound on everything from samurai principles to the dynamics of Italian footwear.
The duo’s unorthodox take on the outside world is matched by the vagaries of their personal lives. Married to sisters (Ariane Schluter, Betty Schuurman) and aware that Leen has been in love with his brother’s wife, Paula, since the outset, the quartet has come to a tacit arrangement. While his own wife showers each morning, Leen spends 15 minutes faking domestic harmony with Paula.
Refreshingly, the women anchor the film with normalcy, heading pragmatically off to work while their husbands continue to shun the real world, indulging in idle daytime pursuits and aimless games at night.
But when things need to take off in a more decisive direction they stall instead, continually retreading the same ground. The problem appears to be one of conception, in literary rather than film terms. Leen’s wife is seen at one point reading a book by Italo writer Gianni Celati, whose ambling prose full of ambiguous chance encounters may have served as the inspiration here. But what works on the page doesn’t necessarily translate accessibly to the screen.
That said, the film’s eavesdropping, observational quality makes it lazily compelling, and considerable low-key, ironic humor is drawn out of the brothers’ constant brushes with the unexpected side of human nature. Final twist also has a quirky appeal, as Albert decides to take his pursuit of other people’s stories beyond the usual boundaries by following a Japanese tour group clear to Paris.
Thesps slot easily into the idiosyncratic tone, with Bokma especially good, shifting suddenly between subdued, almost sullen stretches and outpourings of feverish verbosity.
Tech backup also is sturdy. Fons Merkies’ jazzy score comes in erratic bursts that mirror the story’s free-form riff quality. Camera trio Jan Wich, Lex Wertwijn and Peter Brugman give things a handsome, hip sheen, with alluring night lighting, a fine compositional sense and an appealing knack for picking out oddball details in the seemingly commonplace small-town setting.