Reviewed by: David Graham

"Its shock tactics never feel cheap and its cerebral bent should see it transcend the torture porn ghetto."

A brutally self-reflexive – and self-assured – thriller from Gareth The Raid Evans’ Indonesian studio Merantau Pictures, Killers marks the Mo Brothers’ arrival as a real directorial force to be reckoned with, after promising but messy debut Macabre and a stand-out VHS2 segment (co-directed by half of the pair with Evans). Taking an epic, multi-stranded look at the relationship between modern technology, social media and attitudes towards violence, it’s not quite as transgressive as something like Martyrs – although it’s almost as elegant – but it has a lingering resonance that will encourage repeat viewings. Balancing grim character study with thriller elements and even jet-black comedy, it’s unquestionably a difficult watch – especially at 140 minutes – but its shock tactics never feel cheap and its cerebral bent should see it transcend the torture porn ghetto.

In ultra-modern Tokyo, Nomura is an urbane rich kid with a taste for death, which he digitally broadcasts to a closed group of internet worshippers. He’s growing tired of his trade though, the young women he toys with becoming all too easy prey. Enter Bayu, a Jakarta journalist whose sense of injustice leads him into his own death-dealing situation. Striking up a mentorly friendship over the web, Nomura encourages Bayu to tap into his killer instinct, egging him on to ever more elaborate crimes. With their bloodlust beginning to threaten those they hold dearest, the two’s paths look set to cross in a showdown which could seal their bond or destroy them both.

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Opening unapologetically with a protracted scene of sadistic, misogynistic menace, the Mos immediately distinguish themselves from the splat-pack by focusing on the perpetrator’s ennui, the most disturbing aspect of the situation being how bored he has become. With sleek, intimate photography and a churning score setting the viewer on edge, it’s clear we’re back in the sort of gut-punching, mind-melting territory Pascal Laugier traversed, although the Mo Brothers cast their net even wider and refuse to bring religion into the equation.

Flitting to Indonesia to follow nominal ‘hero’ Bayu, the Mos emphasise the difference between their two settings to help us understand how someone relatively normal could end up indulging in the brutality to come. Where the cold, cash-driven citizens of Tokyo leave Nomura feeling like an Asian Patrick Bateman, Bayu is frustrated (and motivated to action) by the corruption all around him in the less progressive society of Indonesia. While he’s fascinated by Nomura’s work, Bayu’s voyeurism only spills over into his own acts of violence accidentally, but once he’s got the bug, the sense of empowerment takes over, spurred by the heavily homoerotic webcam-based relationship the two are cultivating. Ironically, Bayu’s antics temporarily distract Nomura from his usual slaughter, the Mos suggesting that the vicarious thrill of on-screen violence may actually curb his own excesses (and by extension the audience’s – a sharp riposte to conventional thinking that cinematic violence begets real-world horror).

Like the structurally similar Mysterious Skin, Killers charts a kind of diamond-shaped journey for its two parallel protagonists, beginning from a central point of general apathy while following the paths one has (apparently) chosen and the other has been forced down to their darkest extremes, before uniting them at the end for either catharsis or destruction. It also mirrors Ichi The Killer in its depiction of two protagonists embodying the yin and yang impulses of sado-masochism (though it’s not as clearly delineated here), with a crucial sexual element again influencing their behaviour: like Ichi, Nomura lashes out at the women who emasculate him, while Bayu also echoes Ichi in his vigilantism being directed against the bullies and perverts produced by power.

The language barrier means a few scenes suffer for being delivered in stilted English – which will elicit snickers from less enlightened viewers – but the acting is solid across the board, the two leads selling their emotional transitions well. Rin Takanashi makes Nomura both frightening and pathetic, while Oka Antara is especially good as Bayu, further building on his V/H/S/2 appeal (he’s apparently even better in The Raid 2). Rather than the horror, it’s the relationships that really keep Killers ticking, with Nomura’s burgeoning romance played out in such an engaging fashion that it can’t help but build dread, while his touching affection towards his paramour’s bullied brother hints at his possible redemption. The Mos manage this balance between the characters’ dark sides and their sympathetic qualities with aplomb, making it easy to invest in their fates.

As the narrative builds towards the inevitable face-off, some of the plot’s digressions detract from the momentum, but it’s still a skilfully orchestrated slice of mayhem, fulfilling the promise I Saw The Devil squandered with its repetitive second half. The kiss-off sees the Mos provoking the audience to the last, but in a manner that reeks of genuine societal concern, as opposed to the barrel-scraping shock tactics of A Serbian Film: Killers effectively depicts our desensitisation to death and the notion of murder as a drug in a relatively subtle, sobering manner.

It may prove a difficult sell – there’s probably too much going on for the slasher crowd, and art-house crowds rarely deal well with charnel-house theatrics – but Killers is an invigorating pleasure for hardcore horror buffs and open-minded indie-lovers alike. Where Macabre was content to spray the scarlet stuff all over the screen in homage to its inspirations, Killers keeps it cool while retaining a bracingly vicious streak, implicating the audience with every twist of the knife. Operating on a plethora of levels – often simultaneously – its efforts to stimulate the brain add even more to its ability to get your pulse racing. It’s a credit to Evan’s Merantau Productions, a great showcase for its leads and a brilliant calling card for the Mo Brothers, and sure to be one of the horror highlights of the year.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2014
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Killers packshot
An accomplished but bored serial killer takes a journalist who is drawn to murder under his wing.
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Director: Mo Brothers, Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto

Writer: Takuji Ushiyama, Timo Tjahjanto

Starring: Rin Takanashi, Luna Maya, Ray Sahetapy, Kazuki Kitamura, Epy Kusnandar, Oka Antara, Mei Kurokawa, Tara Basro

Year: 2014

Runtime: 137 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Indonesia, Japan

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