A considerable leap forward in terms of subtlety and control from his 1999 debut “Jesus Is a Palestinian,” Dutch director Lodewijk Crijns’ second feature, “With Great Joy,” is a spare, compelling tale of guilt, shame and fear of the unknown. While its climactic revelations ultimately are less rewarding than its teasing, expertly modulated sense of menace and mystery, the psychological drama’s astutely etched characters, accomplished cast and potent, dread-laden atmosphere should ensure festival and TV exposure, with modest theatrical sales not out of the question.
The film is part of a series of four features titled “No More Heroes” from Dutch production banner Motel Films, which spawned 1998 fest hit “The Polish Bride.” Others in the series about challenging contemporary characters in an unaccommodating world are Nanouk Leopold’s “Iles Flottantes,” Martin Koolhoven’s “Amnesia” and Michiel van Jaarsbergen’s “Drift.”
Story throws together two couples who, despite their shared origins, have settled into opposite worlds. Luc (Jaap Spijkers) receives a phone call from authorities notifying him that his brother Ad (Jack Wouterse), who went missing without a trace 15 years earlier, has been sighted in the woodland of the Belgian Ardennes. Together with his very pregnant wife, Mieke (Camilla Siegertsz), Luc travels to the region and tracks down Ad in the isolated shack he shares with his wife, Els (Renee Soutendijk).
Ad’s distant, unforthcoming manner makes it obvious he has no wish to explain his sudden disappearance. But Luc stays on, dispatching Mieke back to the city, so he can heal the rift with his brother.
As long-buried animosity between Luc and Ad begins to resurface, and the embers of affection between Luc and Els resume their glow, director Crijns skillfully amplifies the tension, introducing a more nervy edge into the editing and shooting style.
Hearing noises, Luc becomes aware of a disquieting presence in the basement. The sense of foreboding is deftly sustained as Luc gets closer to discovering Ad and Els’ dark secret, a severely handicapped, uncontrollably violent adolescent imprisoned like a caged animal.
The revelation initially carries echoes of Werner Herzog’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” in its promise of a confrontation between civilized and uncivilized humanity. But the screenplay by the director and Kim van Kooten (an actress who starred in Crijns’ previous film and in Robert Jan Westdijk’s “Little Sister”) follows a more conventional path that inevitably reps a deflating return to more banal reality after the truly unnerving, suspenseful setup.
With the family’s skeleton let out of the closet roughly two-thirds in, there’s a sense of premature climax. But despite this, the action remains gripping through to the abrupt conclusion.
In fusing horror with melodrama, the filmmakers perhaps have left themselves open to charges of exploitative treatment of the sensitive social theme of mental and physical handicaps. But the script explores uneasy twists on the idea of parenting from risky but intelligent angles, particularly so in its observation of the changes sparked in Luc.
Playing complex characters tied together by uneasy bonds, the cast is uniformly strong. Bear-like Wouterse balances brute strength with emotional frailty, and Spijkers (“The Polish Bride”) conveys the confusion and anxiety of a well-meaning man desperate to repair his relationship with his brother but unable to apply his sophisticated solutions to a primitive situation. Perhaps most interesting of all, Soutendijk makes Els as tough as she is maternal, torn by remorse but defiantly unapologetic for her past decisions.
Joost van Gelder’s dark-toned lensing of the eerie woodland locations and Fons Merkies’ understated score both contribute significantly to the bracingly creepy film’s textured mood.