We first meet Kenny (Kevin Janssens) at the front of a courtroom. As the previous scene briefly, hectically establishes, he’s been forced to take the fall for a botched break-in carried out along with his brother, Dave (Jeroen Perceval), and his girlfriend, Sylvie (Veerle Baetens). The judge delivers his sentence with the weariness of a disappointed headmistress, citing Kenny’s drug use and “excessive violence” as cause for strong consequences. His actual crime is left unsaid; what he’s really getting judged on is a longer destructive pattern. These patterns, and the fight to break free of them, are the dramatic firmament of The Ardennes, the feature film debut of Flemish writer-director Robin Pront.

After finishing his seven-year prison sentence, Kenny returns home to some significant changes. Dave is a teetotaler and working at a car wash. Sylvie, overcoming a drug habit herself, is still working a thankless nightclub gig but pursuing a degree in massage therapy during the day. Unbeknownst to Kenny, she is pregnant by Dave, who struggles to do well by his brother while keeping his relationship with Sylvie a secret.

Yet Kenny proves an irrepressible force, showing up unannounced to Sylvie’s NA meeting, knocking out her boss at the nightclub and getting both himself and Dave fired from the car wash when the boss’s accomplices show up seeking vengeance. Before long, Dave is getting sucked back into Kenny’s chaotic orbit.

During these scenes, The Ardennes proceeds as gritty social realism. Pront’s Antwerp, far removed from the splendor of the Old City, looks badly in need of sunshine and civic investment, its working class occupants listless and stoic. The film takes its time with Dave and Sylvie as they cautiously welcome Kenny back into their lives.

But then a body turns up in Kenny’s trunk, and he drags Dave to the Ardennes, a massive deciduous forest stretching across southern Belgium and Luxembourg, for the film’s gruesome third act. At this point, the film tilts abruptly into New Extremity territory, replete with an eccentric accomplice whose New Age ramblings don’t pause as he hacks up corpses for disposal.

During this stretch, The Ardennes finally picks up steam. A hand-to-hand brawl that starts inside a mobile home before bursting through its side is an especially gripping, well-paced scene. Yet the scene is also typical of a problem that nags the whole film. As the fight approaches its climax, Robrecht Heyvaert’s camera pulls out of the home and settles on the wall where, right on cue, the combatants tumble violently through. Everything is arranged into displays of well-choreographed style. The slice-of-life slow-burn of the film’s opening acts never gets any payoff. It just serves as windup for a series of neo-noir inevitabilities, including a sadistic twist in the final moments and an arbitrary feel-bad ending.

The Ardennes is, ultimately, a weirdly humorless exercise in European arthouse exploitation. Pront traffics in the genre’s routine homophobia and nihilistic bloodshed but is never more than mildly offensive; if he’s not nearly as reactionary as, say, Gaspar Noé, he’s also not quite as bold. The Ardennes shows no shortage of craft: not from Pront, nor Heyvaert, nor his cast, especially Janssens, whose jovial, belligerent Kenny is easily the film’s most engaging character. Sometimes the film is glibly effective. But mostly it’s just glib, settling into the same old familiar patterns.

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