Killers may have been saddled with a somewhat generic title, but this is a far from routine thriller which sees a dangerous game develop between a methodical serial killer and a disgraced reporter based, respectively, in Tokyo and Jakarta. In terms of its rapidly escalating violence, not to mention the audacious brio with which its set pieces are staged by director duo the Mo Brothers (the unrelated filmmakers Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto), this is arguably the most deranged cinematic bloodbath since I Saw the Devil (2010). As with Kim Jee-woon’s film, Killers will divide audiences between those who see it as a commentary on the lure of violence and detractors who consider its supposed exploration of the depths of human nature to be an excuse for stomach churning excess.
Nomura Shuhei (Kazuki Kitamura) is every inch the model Japanese business executive with his charming manner, cool car, and nice line in designer suits, but his remote residence on the outskirts of the city enables him to hide a sinister secret life: Nomura preys on attractive women, then takes them back to his lair where he tortures and kills them while filming his sadistic actions so that he can upload his videos to the website YourEyes. Killers opens with Nomura hunting down his latest victim in the surrounding woods and, after bludgeoning her to death, posting the footage online under the title ‘Girl with a Hammer’. By chance, this video is seen by Bayu (Oka Antara), an Indonesian journalist who is recovering from the fallout of his ill-fated investigation of shady politician, Dharma (Ray Sahetapy) while trying to maintain relations with his estranged wife Dina (Luna Maya) and teenage daughter Elly (Ersya Aurelia). When he becomes involved in a farcical gun battle after a taxi driver takes him to a secluded spot for an attempted shakedown, Bayu not only emerges miraculously unscathed, but realizes that the incident has been captured by camera phone. By uploading the footage to YourEyes, which has a shockingly indiscriminate content policy, Bayu comes to the attention of Nomura, who thinks that he has found a kindred spirit and reaches out to his ‘counterpart’ to offer tutelage, only to become increasingly jealous of the ‘amateur’ when his subsequent videos prove more popular than his own.
It’s the scenes in which Nomura and Bayu talk through video chat that feature the most clichéd moments in Killers as, restricted by their shared second language of English, the conversations rarely go beyond the fully-fledged psychopath encouraging the fledgling killer to give into his dark side. However, this limited communication gives rise to a fundamental misunderstanding that serves to distinguish the purely evil Nomura from the frustrated Bayu: the former is a remorseless murderer who kills for pleasure, whereas Bayu rationalizes such acts as a way of dealing with the likes of Dharma and his seedy public relations manager Robert (Epy Kusnandar) when their pervasive influence enables them to evade legal prosecution. As the narrative unfolds through extended chapters that take place in two distinctive locales, the Mo Brothers do a terrific job of alternating between contrasting aesthetics. In-keeping with Nomura’s coolness, Tokyo is a glacial metropolis, while Bayu’s unraveling occurs in a grittily messy Jakarta. If the former is framed as a place of alienation and dehumanization – where even Nomura’s brief flirtation with florist Kawahara Hisae (Rin Takanashi) ends unpleasantly – then the latter is a hotbed of corruption that has already taken its toll on Bayu before he comes into possession of a gun.
What keeps Killers from slipping into an exercise in sheer extremity is the Mo Brothers’ mordant sense of humor with the film’s original title of Killer Clowns suggesting the skewed approach that they take to the escalating body count. As he is new to killing, Bayu’s sloppiness and lack of preparation turns him from the hunter to the hunted in a cracking chase through a luxury hotel which shows the influence of producer Gareth Evans of The Raid (2011) fame as the protagonist uses every item at his disposal as a weapon to avoid being apprehended by the henchmen of his latest victim. Nomura is slicker operator, but has a close call while trying to conceal an intended victim in the trunk of his car while a pair of cops run his license due to a parking violation. The performances are also perfectly pitched with the everyman quality of actor-rapper Antara ensuring that Bayu is a credible mix of righteous anger and jittery nerves while Kitamura utilizes his considerable charisma to make the self-assured Nomura a compelling monster.
This co-production between Japanese major Nikkatsu and Indonesian production house Guerilla Merah Films is slightly let-down by its stock torture porn elements and the conventional conclusion that results from the need to bring its protagonists together for a final showdown that will allow Bayu some form of redemption. However, its fetishization of violence – particularly the manner in which Nomura’s carefully edited footage suggests a way that Bayu can reverse his downward personal trajectory – forces the viewer to consider how we are often attracted, and even excited, by images that should be repulsive. Despite its sleek production values, Killers is too gruesome to achieve breakout success, but aficionados of hardcore Asian thrillers will most likely find it to be propulsive, provocative, and mischievously satisfying.