[This review was originally published at Filmwell.]

I once took a ride in a small car with a sunroof. My head touched the ceiling — a common problem for a tall guy like me — but otherwise, I was comfortable. It never occurred to me that I might be in any danger. And I didn’t sense anything unusual when the breeze became too much for the driver and he closed the sunroof. But alas, the problem became painfully clear when the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes and I rocked forward. Many strands of hair that had been shut tight in the sealed sunroof tore right out of my scalp, and I thought I’d lost the top of my head.

That moment came back to me in a flash during one of Eldorado‘s many sudden, painful twists. I actually clutched my head and laughed out loud just as suddenly as I had screamed that day on the road. I won’t explain the scene to you. Suffice it to say that if you want to stay awake during a long drive, don’t use your hair as a suspender for your head.

You won’t have any trouble staying awake through Eldorado. Even though the trip’s ultimate destination may prove unsatisfying, there’s enough sick and twisted humor to make the trip memorable, and the lead performance — provided by the writer and director, Bouli Lanners, himself — is a pleasure.

If the Dardennes brothers are Belgium’s way of building upon Bresson, then we might describe Bouli Lanners as giving the Coen Brothers a Belgian twist. His arresting feature is full of absurdly funny moments that I can only describe as Lebowski-esque.

There’s an inspired absurdity to the opening scene: Yvan (Lanners), a heavy-set car dealer, grabs a pipe and marches into his house to confront the burglar who is making a racket inside. We brace for a violent clash. Instead, we witness a confounding contest, as Yvan must fight to stay awake long enough to get the upper hand.

Lanners has said that the scene is based on something that happened to him, which explains how the predicament is at once unlikely and utterly convincing. It’s also hilarious. I’d have to go back to Fargo or Raising Arizona to find funnier crime scenes. Elie (Fabrice Adde) just may be the dumbest robber since H.I. McDonagh borrowed one of the Arizona babies.

Things became even more delightfully unpredictable when Lanners finds a way to get these two in a car on a cross-country trek together. They’re the most unlikely traveling companions since Jack Walsh brought the Duke home on a Midnight Run. Yvan has a burgeoning reservoir of patience and compassion beneath that gruff, solvenly exterior, and this endears us to him quickly. He manages to be both inscrutable and expressive at the same time, a little like the soulful Ray Winstone (The Proposition), a little like the forlorn Timothy Spall (All or Nothing). By contrast — and it’s a buddy movie, so juxtaposition is everything — Elie is annoyingly wretched. Zombie-like, addicted to heroin, and almost incapable of coherent thought, he inhales just deeply enough to exhale another lie.

I was also delighted by Lanners’ consistently engaging aesthetic, which makes the French-speaking region of Belgium called Wallonia feel like the wild, wild west. Vast spacious landscapes. Metallic textures as rough as Yvan’s old station wagon. A sense of dust and exhaust in the air. Burnt colors that reminded me of Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Name. The smoky guitars of the soundtrack seem inspired by Tarantino, but they find a lively synergy with the bittersweet imagery. They give just the right kind of burn to scenes of Yvan rocketing his ’79 Chevy through country that has a painterly color and composition. It’s interesting that Yvan is so attached to his rickety American vehicle, as Lanner’s movie itself seems to be a clunky American vehicle moving through Belgian scenery.

Just as Midnight Run‘s Jonathan Mardukas brought his bounty hunter off the track of routine to reckon with his ex-wife and daughter, so Yvan ends up trying to encourage healing in Elie’s broken family. As he does, we come to see why he cares so much for this scrawny junkie, and the film comes close to plunging into familiar ruts of sappy, sentimentality.

But Lanners knows better, and steers the car away from the pit and back into unfamiliar territory. He’s not about to serve up predictable platitudes about second chances and convenient redemption. Life’s taught him differently.

Unfortunately, the direction he does take is not just bleak. It’s abrasive. When the pair find an injured dog, the animal may as well be stamped “SYMBOL.” And if the animal’s incessant whining doesn’t wear out viewers’ patience, Lanners’ ultimately pessimistic view is likely to earn a few insults from his audience as they leave.

Personally, I have no problem with the story itself. The dog’s whimpers are aggravating, yes, but I admire Lanners’ refusal to play to the crowd. His conclusions are frustrating, but they do provoke questions about Yvan’s charitable impulses, and about how we’ve been conditioned to expect sweet little lies from our storytellers.

And what of the prophet who delivers the film’s opening remark, identifying himself as Christ returned from heaven, exhorting us all to have faith? Eldorado reaches the end of the road without finding any treasure — spiritual or shiny. Any faith we obediently mustered goes unrewarded. Thus, Eldorado is an example of storytelling as cynical lament. Good Samaritans may invest faith, hope, and love in the salvation of fools, but their charity will lead to constant disappointment. Who hasn’t felt that way about their lives at one time or another? If Lanners wants to shake his fist at heaven and declare the futility of goodwill through a story, more power to him. A famous psalmist used to do that all the time, and he came to be known as a man after God’s own heart.

No, the film’s problem isn’t its bleak perspective. The problem is its episodic nature. The first act is so inspired that subsequent chapters seem contrived to sustain a zany unpredictability rather than develop the themes of the story. The Coen’s Big Lebowski was a patchwork of bizarre encounters that barely held together, but most of those episodes served up characters and predicaments that kept that laughs coming. By contrast, Yvan and Elie’s misadventures seem almost arbitrary, and they progress from hilarious to amusing to merely ludicrous.

I’m not really sure if the various freaks and crooks Yvan meets along he way serve the story’s themes. A car-collector (Philippe Nahon) shows them a garage full of vehicles that all have one troubling thing in common. This macabre hobby may reflect Lanners’ own attraction to stories of calamity. Or it might reflect the accumulation of Yvan’s disappointments. But what about the naked camper-dweller who comes to their help?

By the time we reach the end of the film, the disappointment I felt was not sympathy for Yvan, as Lanner’s intended, but a frustration that the promise made in the opening scenes was never fulfilled. The buzz of inspired absurdity burned away long before the film’s despondent sigh of conclusion.

If the film is intended as a lament for Belgium itself, then I’ll just have to take Lanners’ word for it. I suspect this is the kind of commentary that will resonate more fully with those who have lived within the country in question. We learn the lyrics to a national anthem, in which Belgians swear that the glory of the fatherland shall live. But if this story is any indication, that sounds like wishful thinking.

Film Movement distributed the film on DVD in the U.S., and I’m grateful for their courage in taking on this bizarre little movie. But in their liner notes, they speak of the film’s vision of healing. Somehow, I think I missed it.