“Have you ever wondered if it would be easier to die?”
Killers, a new crime drama from Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel (otherwise known as The Mo Brothers) follows two men – one in Tokyo and the other in Jakarta – who commit murder to film, uploading their victims’ final moments to the internet to the delight of onlookers. The image of a dying person’s face on a computer screen, coldly flanked by a stream of anonymous commenters, is the kind of bitter juxtaposition that the film likes to play with. A movie about snuff film can hardly escape engaging in some meta-commentary about our fascination with death and violence, a subject with a long cinematic history. Yet Killers is hardly the Mo Brothers’ attempt at Funny Games. Stylistically it follows in the footsteps of ultra-violent Asian crime thrillers like I Saw the Devil, though at some points it has more in common with movies like Saw or Untraceable – at least it recalls such flicks in its opening scene where a masked man kills a young woman on camera.
Departed-style, we have twin protagonists (if you can call them that) in Bayu and Nomura. Nomura (Kazuki Kitamura) is a stylish, single Japanese man, a sociopath and amateur murder enthusiast. Bayu (Oka Antara) is a frustrated journalist and family man with a daughter and estranged wife and a score to settle with a powerful Indonesian businessman. Though different sorts of people, they meet via chat room and develop the kind of uneasy relationship that I would assume comes with knowing your new friend is an amoral monster. Bayu experiences an “attraction of repulsion” to Nomura’s snuff films. He likes to ceremoniously slam his laptop shut in disgust, but he also finds himself awakening to his own latent bloodlust.
There have been lots of movies about a “regular guy” who tries to emulate a criminal for his own purposes. They always underestimate the liability of having a conscience. Bayu directs his rage at people who have wronged him; Nomura has a murder basement right out of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and seemingly kills because he’s bored. The psychopath is committed to his nihilism which is exactly what makes him so dangerous. Regular Guys always find themselves in a moral dilemma sooner or later, and they always have something to lose (I wonder if Bayu’s daughter will end up in peril before this is over). For a great example of a novice blundering into the revenge game, check out Jeremy Saulnier’s excellent Blue Ruin, which made our top 10 list for 2014.
The movie’s best asset is its slick style. The brothers have a keen if slightly bombastic sense of composition and one of the most interesting parts of the film is watching where they choose to put the camera for maximum effectiveness. A parking garage scuffle is viewed from beneath a car; a door opens beyond the bloodied limbs of a recent kill; and, in a moment of unexpected black humor, a man stuffs a struggling woman back into the truck of his car while incompetent police officers talk in the foreground (how to get away with murder: move to Japan, apparently).
The flip-side to this is that some of the action is confusingly edited. In scene where Bayu is accosted in a car by two thieves, it’s often difficult to tell what’s happening and how. I watched that scene probably three or four times trying to figure out the orientation and causality of everything and I still came out a bit confused. It’s an important scene because it’s the moment when Bayu becomes a killer, and it needed the kind of clarity afforded by a similar scene in I Saw the Devil where multiple men attack each other inside a taxi cab.
Interestingly, for a movie with such an unrestrained fetish for violence, the film seems surprisingly reticent when it comes to sex. I wouldn’t even mention it if it weren’t the fact that there seems to be a connection between sex and violence in the narrative. The very first shot shows a couple having sex (in oblique glimpses) prior to the girl’s death. Later, Nomura picks up a prostitute (to kill her) and their conversation is a double entendre where she is talking about sex and he is talking about her murder. Bayu is sexually assaulted by the thug in the car but the scene makes it impossible to tell what is happening; we just know he stumbles out of the fray with his pants down. If the brothers are using sex for shock value, why play it so cautiously? If they have a point to make it never comes through.
That brings me to my major complaint. For all the plot and thematic material packed into its lengthy runtime, Killers doesn’t seem to have a lot on its mind. It’s a plot machine, through and through. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but there’s a certain scumminess that you feel from trudging through such darkness without having anything to say about it. A key subplot involves Nomura stumbling upon a young girl and her even younger autistic brother trying to run a failing flower shop. When he first sees them, she’s trying to put them both out of their misery by standing in the road to be run over. Nomura charms his way into her life and immediately becomes a corrupting influence on the boy. He gives expensive gifts and encourages the kid to take out his anger on his bullies, even supplying him with a (Chekov’s) taser. Yet this development seems to go nowhere except to bring the child back at the end for a sort of nasty punchline. Maybe it’s about how the cycle of violence continues, or viewing death as performance, or … something. My view is the film doesn’t develop most of its themes and really only has a passing interest in them to start with. It’s mostly content to be slick and sick and make you contort your face a little while you watch a guy get his foot crushed with a brick.
Killers is unremittingly bleak, misanthropic, and sadistically violent; thrilling at times but increasingly absurd and ultimately hollow. I’ll stop short of calling it violence porn, but it would not be unfair. It begins with murder as titillation, placing it in the same context as a sex cam. By the end it implicates itself in the process. I haven’t seen any of the other films by these directors, except for Tjahjanto’s bizarre short in the mostly wretched ABCs of Death, but they have a clear talent for creating striking imagery and I would love to see them develop into more mature filmmakers.