An older gangster is shaken out of a lifetime of blinkered amorality when he goes into hiding in Eche Janga’s striking debut, “Helium.” Impressively shot by Tibor Dingelstad, this moody chamber piece may be too unhurried for some, and the script doesn’t quite connect enough with the protag, yet Janga’s spare, evocative study of a hoodlum unexpectedly in touch with the natural world offers numerous rewards. Actor Hans Dagelet’s popularity at home as a TV star will give local B.O. something of a boost, though the pic is considerably artier than his usual fare. A small fest life is likely.
Rain sweeps across a solitary beach; a man sits inside his colorless apartment, the low camera angle revealing a drink on the floor and the ceiling’s omnipresence. He’s Frans Weeling (Dagelet), a criminal kingpin who needs to go into hiding until his henchmen can deal with rival Nigerian gangsters. Frans is a cool character, exuding a quiet, menacing power as he and subordinates John (Manou Kersting) and Elias (Poal Cairo) head to the island of Texel, where off-season isolation provides them with cover.
Time seems to stand still while the threesome waits for things to calm down — literally, when the batteries are removed from a clock. Although they’re all on high alert, the stillness of this desolate place awakens in Frans a sense of his surroundings, signaled via handsome shots of landscapes combined with natural sounds made prominent by his being cut off from the mainland. Once the Nigerians are bumped off, the three return home to Amsterdam, but Frans is a different man, no longer invested in his criminal life and the ruthlessness needed to remain top dog.
Echoes of Cassavetes’ buddy groupings can be felt here, minus the psychological insight, and it’s easy to imagine Seymour Cassel in the Frans role. However, what’s interesting isn’t the plot so much as the way the helmer parallels interior states of mind with arresting images, rich in atmosphere, and the basic elements of fire, earth, water and air. From a sudden torrential downpour to nosebleed drops on a table, “Helium” privileges composition, at times to the detriment of full engagement with Frans’ sudden realization of his life’s emptiness. He’s impenetrable yet always intriguing, and while the pic is deliberately paced, it’s never dull.
Static long to mid-distance shots handsomely capture the effects of the country’s famed “Dutch light,” especially in coastal areas, and framing is impeccable. Sophisticated sound design makes it seem as if Frans has just awoken to the noises of the world, with rumbles and tremors pierced by other frequencies. Troubling music partly comprised of wasp-like strings adds to the feel of unsettled melancholy.