Two hour and twenty minute horror epics are rare, let alone ones that hold my attention for their entire duration – the Mo Brothers’ (Timo Tjahjanto & Kimo Stamboel) Killers now has a place in that unique group. Brutal, captivating, and often hilarious, Killers constantly challenges its audience as it contrasts beautiful, rich cinematography with despicable acts of violence, soaking the result in some of the darkest wit imaginable. The film sits at a crossroads between horror, thriller and satire – it’s decidedly arthouse and the Mo Brothers regularly aim to disgust and amuse the viewer in the same motion. I’ll try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible but I can’t make any guarantees – I really want everybody who thinks they’re up to the challenge to seek this film out because it’s truly something special.
Opening with one of the most confronting on-screen murders in recent memory, toying with both the male and female gaze, Killers is a pan-Asian production that tracks the mutual obsession of two contrasting men. Nomura (Kazuki Kitamura) is a privileged Japanese serial killer who posts meticulously crafted and near-professionally produced videos of his murders to public video streaming websites for gratification. Bayu (Oka Antara) is a Indonesian reporter with little recognition, who has dedicated his life to futile attempts at stamping out corruption. Through accident and circumstance Bayu murders two men and is subsequently tracked down by Nomura after he posts a video of his crime online. The men develop a mutual fascination with each other’s murders – Nomura thinks he has found a kindred spirit, while a morbidly curious Bayu, disgusted by Nomura’s actions, seeks comprehension of Nomura’s deranged and unjust executions. Over the course of a few online conversations Nomura begins to mentor Bayu, encouraging him to embrace his murderous instincts.
A lot of films purport to have something along the lines of “the most intense final half-hour ever captured”, and most of the time it just isn’t true. I can say unequivocally that Killers has one of the most tense and confronting final thirds (yes, around 45 consecutive minutes) I’ve ever seen. From the moment everything begins to unravel, the Mo Brothers manage to create and maintain a sense of overbearing dread unmatched by others in their immediate circle. It is true masterful direction, with their directorial techniques conjuring a sense of realism that many “realistic” horror films fail to capture.
Within this mode, the Mo Brothers experiment with some truly spectacular, left-of-centre filmic ideas. There’s ongoing embedded aural and visual satire of Japanese soap operas, sequences that jump between traditional steady-shots and shaky shots from a first person perspective, and some ultra-dark humour that emerges in some of the films most upsetting moments. Some will put a few of the more wacky elements of the film down to poor direction however those do not have faith in the Mo. With a familiarity of their prior work, it’s fairly apparent that every odd moment here is intentional. Working with such a long runtime, the Mo Brothers would have had the opportunity to cut around any sequence they were unhappy with, so the fact that everything included has made it into a final cut that, despite its runtime, never feels bloated, speaks volumes to the control that the Mo Brothers have exercised over this film.
The film had the potential to be a problem-ridden mess considering its ambitious scale; it could have been bloated and filled with subplots that lead to nowhere, the switch between three different languages may have caused all sorts of issues, and the film would have been completely undone if it reveled in the crimes of its protagonists. Luckily none of these issues mar Killers, a film that somehow, despite all odds, manages to maintain composure and its audiences interest for its entire runtime. Some of the English isn’t up to scratch but this only adds to the realism of the film – it’s entirely believable, and even likely, that the English communication of two people of native Japanese and Indonesian tongue would be broken. The film doesn’t allow the audience to take pleasure in most of its protagonists’ crimes – this is one of the few instances in modern horror where I can honestly say virtually none of the murders are enjoyable or fun, which is probably down to the fact that nearly none of the men’s victims deserve what comes to them, and a few of their victims are even likeable. The gore, while definitely constant, is often realistic, and is only played up for laughs occasionally – a move away from the previous exaggerated physical effects of other Mo Brothers related productions like V/H/S/2’s Safe Haven segment and The ABC’s of Death’s L is for Libido.
Killers is the film A Serbian Film should have been – it’s confronting, it’s brutal, and it has something very important to say about the normalization of violence and misogyny in society by focusing on our complicit role as spectators to this violence, but unlike A Serbian Film it’s subtle. The film never assaults the audience purely for the sake of assault, and most of the violence occurs just out of frame, leaving the terror to stew in the imagination. The Mo Brothers want us to question our complicity in violent actions which are disseminated through modern media (especially considering the pervasion of visual representations of death online and in the media), with a particular interest in the effect this will have on future generations who have been raised in a time of freely accessible internet with increasingly proficient recording equipment in their pockets, and in this respect they are highly successful. Due to their approach to the content, Killers lacks much of the inherent contradictions of A Serbian Film. Don’t worry, if you can stomach the opening sequences that feature one of the most terrifying, confronting and uncomfortable on-screen murders of recent history you should be able to take on the remainder of the film’s content. Killers is my early pick for my favourite at the fest and I urge anyone and everyone that thinks they can handle it to go and check it out. This is truly unique cinema on the cutting edge of the horror genre and it deserves much wider recognition than it will probably ever see. The Mo Brothers are fast carving themselves a place previously held by the likes of Takashi Miike, Bong Joon-Ho, and Park Chan-Wook as members of the new generation of horror greats.
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