‘The Treatment’: One of the Most Disturbing Movies Ever Made

the treatment movie

Much has been made in recent weeks of ostensibly disturbing horror movies. There have been Tik Toks and colloquial hot takes. But, more helpful has been worthwhile deep-dives into movies that strive to disturb but resultantly do little beyond insult. Personally, my mantra has always been that no content is off-limits. Horror is meant to disturb because, from that disturbance, healing and insight are born. That disturbing material needs to have a purpose, though. Gatekeepers might point to Cannibal Holocaust as an example of truly disturbing horror, blithely myopic that those most disturbing elements are the one thing the film’s director Ruggero Deodato regrets.

Horror can flay, exsanguinate, shock, and confront. But it must do so with reason. Otherwise, horror tilts into exploitation, a subgenre all its own that, yes, still commands more purpose and narrative intent than disturbing content for its own sake. The Treatment (De Behandeling), a Belgian thriller from director Hans Herbots, disturbs with purpose, and as such, remains one of the most troubling movies ever made.

Nick Cafmeyer (Geert Van Rampelberg) is a cop in rural Belgium haunted by the disappearance of his brother when they were children. His brother remains missing all those years later. Compounding his grief is his proximity to Ivan Plettnickx (Johan van Assche). He’s the prime suspect in Cafmeyer’s brother’s disappearance who happens to live nearby. He constantly torments Cafmeyer with conflicting evidence and quasi-confessions. In effect, Plettnickx concedes that he may have done it though has no intention of ever saying; it’s considerably more fun to screw with Cafmeyer’s head.

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The sky is overcast and gloomy, and like so many procedural thrillers in the wake of Seven, there is an almost oppressive atmosphere. Belgium, no different than Seattle or coastal fishing hamlets, is ostensibly always besieged with rain and the sun is defiantly absent. Cafmeyer and his partner, Danni Petit (Ina Geerts) are called to investigate a home invasion. There, a married couple was separately imprisoned for three days while their son was taken. He is soon found, deceased in a nearby park. Both his mother and father have confoundingly contradictory accounts of their imprisonment.

The early goings are a quasi-fairy tale of sorts. The murderers and pedophiles are bridge trolls, monstrous beings in the woods that come out to snatch children and then return to their lairs. The cinematography by Frank van den Eeden is suitably antagonistic. It creates a kind of mystic veil that is both otherworldly in its twisted trees and battered grass, fleetingly inviting but thoroughly violent inside. Forensic procedures– fingerprints, the testing of fluids–hang precariously in the balance, though The Treatment is considerably less rote. Yes, Cafmeyer is trying to track down a killer. But he’s more inclined to piece together the why of it all–the exegesis of violent crime and sexual assault.

The reveals are dark and thoroughly shocking, the kind of material that feels almost criminal to see. Never graphic in depiction, the description of what these characters have had will endure is no less shocking. Less prepared viewers might be inclined to flee when the boy’s father (Tobo Vandenborre) reveals the truth of his captivity. For as graphic as it is, The Treatment never feels exploitative.

The Treatment disturbs with purpose, particularly in its exploration of child trafficking and sexual assault. The primetime gloss of Law & Order and Criminal Minds makes it too easy to forget that these crimes are not only real but leave scars more visceral than the constraints of network television permit. The bad guys are not always caught and sometimes trauma endures for generations– it isn’t solved in forty minutes. Dark procedural elements illuminate uncomfortable truths that are difficult to endure though no less urgent because of it.

There is tact in its most disturbing elements. While The Treatment has its fair share of propulsive action, Herbots is wise to resist the temptation to include too many conventional genre elements. In doing so, he would have simultaneously dulled the impact of its most shocking reveals, while adding a grossly cinematic veneer to material that is not and should not be entertaining. Cinema operates in many forms. Sometimes for laughs and jumps, and other times to interrogate our darkest sins. The Treatment is thoroughly disturbing and exceptionally well made. A filmic banshee screech, its power endures long after the lights are back on.



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