A criminal mob whose reach was so powerful that it brought down the last prewar government of the Netherlands is the nominal subject of “The Gang of Oss,” though more than once, a leggy leading lady tries to steal their thunder. Dutch scribe-helmer Andre van Duren’s impeccably styled period piece, set in the 1930s Catholic south, uncomfortably oscillates between grubby group portrait and sexy closeups, much as its characters are torn between crime and a life of God-fearing decency. Netherlands Film Festival opener bowed to OK numbers at home, while offshore, TV buyers should gang up.
Much has been made locally of the fact that the film, based on actual events, shows the true face of the Low Countries in the late 1930s, a period that, at least in other onscreen iterations, had become a nostalgia-infested, theme park-ready utopia.
Van Duren’s latest, co-written by crime-pic specialist Paul Jan Nelissen (“Godforsaken”), doesn’t shy away from the period’s violence and poverty, though it’s hard to see the film as a docu-like corrective, since it, too, traffics in familiar cliches; “Gang” at times feels like a Prohibition-set drama that took a wrong left turn and ended up among the windmills.
Story is largely set in Oss, a midsized industrial town in the devoutly Catholic province of North Brabant, bordering Belgium. The soot-covered workers’ town is ruled by a violent gang of thugs who congregate in the bar of Johanna (Sylvia Hoeks), who not only pours a stiff drink but occasionally satisfies gang members upstairs (her nickname is “Johanna the Slut”).
Narrative proper gets rolling when Johanna’s hubby, the scowling Ties (Flemish thesp Matthias Schoenaerts), is released from prison, and Johanna reveals she wants to turn their watering hole into a restaurant — the screenplay’s not very subtle way of telegraphing that the pretty gal has a mind of her own and wants to better her life.
But the schematic screenplay isn’t much more insightful than that. Ominously mustachioed mob boss Wim (Marcel Musters) sticks to his guns, while some gang members insist they’ll leave their life of crime behind and go abroad. This simplistic binary — should I stay or should I go? — stifles any opportunity for character development or exploration of moral gray zones.
By pitting the baddies as lapsed Catholics who fight the Protestant law-enforcers from the faraway Hague, forgiveness and redemption seem but a Hail Mary away, further defusing the tension. Supporting characters, including a lecherous local priest (Jaap Spijkers) and a sex-addict industrialist (Pierre Bokma), are also mere stick figures, though thesping, in the Brabantic accent, is generally fine.
Pic seems unsure how to balance the story of the gang, whose inner workings remain vague, and their numerous exploits with the sexy but narratively tangential Johanna, who is pushed centerstage several times but never becomes a conduit for any larger underlying themes.
Impressive period re-creation by production designer Dirk Debou and costume designer Manon Blom is aces. Het Paleis van Boem’s grandstanding score injects some much-needed energy, though its operatic tone seems at odds with the pic’s otherwise slightly more naturalistic feel.