Friday, December 10, 2021

Merry CrimesMas: Andy Wolverton on The Ardennes

Christmastime: Good tidings of great joy, peace on earth, good will toward men. 

Not with these guys. Belgian brothers Dave and Kenny come from a different part of the Bible, more like the Jacob and Esau section, or maybe even Cain and Abel.

The Ardennes begins with a flashback showing Dave (Jeroen Perceval) falling into a pool fully clothed, wearing a stocking over his face. Emerging from the pool and gasping for air, Dave runs to a waiting car driven by Kenny’s girlfriend Sylvie (Veerle Baetens). Getting in and yanking off the stocking, he yells at her to drive. As Sylvie speeds off, Dave tells her he had no choice: He had to leave Kenny behind. 

Sylvie and Dave have just made a clean getaway from a home invasion gone wrong, leaving the third member of their trio, Kenny (Kevin Janssens), to take the rap. Refusing to rat out his girlfriend or his brother, Kenny gets sentenced to seven years in the joint. 

Fast forward to the present. Dave is there to pick up Kenny from prison after serving four years of his seven-year sentence. A happy reunion? Hardly. Dave’s too quiet, and Kenny knows something’s wrong, but he doesn’t know what. 

We do. Dave’s been making time with Sylvie. Oh, and Sylvie’s going to have Dave’s baby. Stealing your brother’s girl while he’s in lockup isn’t quite up there with Jacob cheating Esau out of his birthright, but it’s pretty close. 

Post-prison Kenny might as well walk around with a sign above his head with 'Thug' flashing in neon letters. (I think that would be 'misdadiger' in Dutch, but maybe 'thug' is a somewhat universal word.) The sides of Kenny’s head are close-cropped, and his face looks like he was on the wrong end of at least a few prison scrapes. But it’s the ever-present red jacket - not quite as obvious as the one James Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause - that screams “badass.” 

At their mom’s house with the holidays approaching, Kenny remembers the times when he and Dave were young. “Don’t you wish you were a kid again?” Kenny asks. “Weekends in the Ardennes were nice. Was it the mountains? The good air? We were so good there.” We sense that maybe Kenny really wants to start over. Dave has a steady but crappy job at a car wash, and Sylvie has been drug-free for two years. Maybe Kenny can also turn things around. Dave goes to bat for his brother, getting him a job at the same car wash where he works. 

But we soon see hints that Kenny’s reformation might not be so easy. He’s still got a temper, which he demonstrates in two fights in a club that go down so fast you might miss them if you’re reaching for a beer. But Dave knows he eventually has to tell Kenny the truth about him and Sylvie. 

Or does he?

Kenny’s anger gets the best of him, and soon he and Dave are trying to get rid of a dead body. (I won’t tell you whose.) Kenny remembers his former cellmate Stef (Jan Bijvoet), now living with a drag queen in the Ardennes. Stef’s a guy who can help them dispose of the evidence of Kenny’s anger. (Let’s just say that Stef’s had plenty of practice.) Maybe Kenny’s thinking that the Ardennes, a place of innocence and warm memories from his past, can cleanse him, help him start over. Or maybe Kenny’s thinking about what Dave still hasn’t told him. But then the presence of one of the locals and an inquisitive dog changes everything…

It’s at this point that some audiences give up on the believability of the film, but maybe those viewers are too hasty. Sure, there’s mayhem, murder, and wildly escalating violence, some of which is over the top, but all of it makes sense if you’ve ever heard the fable of the scorpion and the frog. In fact, it makes perfect sense. 

It also makes perfect sense that the film’s finale is set in the Ardennes, the location of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II as well as the site of a shorter battle in World War I. This war between two brothers may be smaller in its scale of devastation, but despite some of the film’s weaknesses, it’s a compelling watch. 

And if you want a break from good tidings of great joy, peace on earth, and good will toward men, look no further than The Ardennes.  

Andy Wolverton is a librarian in Severna Park, Maryland where he leads the Guys Book Club and hosts a virtual movie discussion program. You can visit his website, watch his YouTube channel, follow him on Twitter @awolverton77, or ignore him completely. 

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