Review: The Mo Brothers’ Killers

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Though not related by blood, the Mo Brothers—Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto—are sure as hell united by the red stuff. The Indonesian filmmakers are as enamored by blood’s ability to induce queasiness as exploitation king Herschell Gordon Lewis. Unlike H.G. Lewis, they also happen to be first-class filmmakers, bringing artistry to extreme gore. 

Stamboel and Tjahjanto’s 2009 feature debut, Macabre—an unabashed Texas Chain Saw Massacre disciple—is your standard group-of-innocents-enter-a-killers’-house-of-horrors exercise that ups the ante with more blood than the first two Evil Dead films combined. Tjahjanto’s two subsequent shorts are no less viscera-stained—“L is for Libido,” his remarkably perverse The ABC’s of Death segment, turns masturbation into a heinous bloodsport, while V/H/S/2’s “Safe Haven,” his ferocious collaboration with The Raid mastermind Gareth Huw Evans, is a wonderfully batshit free-for-all of doomsday panic, demons, exploding stomachs, bullet headshots, and blown-off skulls. If the Mo Brothers’ names are on a film, it’s guaranteed to smash taboos and challenge stomachs.

Which is why Killers, the second film they’ve made together, feels like such a giant leap forward. For all of its hard-to-watch moments of sadism, it’s just as tenderly character-driven. Granted, Killers does open with a nasty prologue that’s on par with any of Macabre’s visceral sickness—tied to a chair, with her head covered in a plastic bag, a woman gets her head bashed in with a mallet. The masked assailant is Nomura (Kazuki Kitamura), a serial killer who records his murders and uploads the videos to his members-only website for depraved thrill-seekers to watch. One such viewer is Bayu (Oka Antara), a journalist who’s going through a rough separation from his wife and obsessively stalking a powerful Jakarta businessman he suspects of being pedophile. The latter issue is quickly ruining Bayu’s career—in Nomura and his online clips, though, Bayu finds a kindred spirit, someone who can help the nebbish pushover unleash his inner demons.

The corpses pile up, and the blood cascades, yet Killers isn’t as one-sidedly assaultive as the filmmakers’ previous works. There’s an undercurrent of sensitivity throughout. Nomura and Bayu’s relationship is tethered by the loneliness and acceptance that stems from easy, only-a-click-away cyber connections. Antara, an alumnus of both “Safe Haven” and The Raid 2, is particularly strong as the fragile Bayu, giving the character real empathy through his tortured eyes and scenes with his estranged daughter. Kitamura, meanwhile, comes from the Mads Mikkelsen School of Suave Cold-Blooded Killer Acting—equally handsome and chilling, he plays the icy, manipulative Nomura as an executioner whose soul isn’t entirely gone. Women are understandably attracted to him and, eventually, justifiably paralyzed by fear. Wisely, co-writers Tjahjanto and Tahuji Ushiyam pair Kitamura’s character with the beautiful Hisae (Rin Takanashi), a sweet, kind flower shop worker who touches his inner softie. It’s an obvious sympathy-generator used often in movies of this kind—most recently with Nora Arnezeder’s love interest role in Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac remake—but it’s never gratuitously sentimental here.

That’s a good thing, too, since Killers achieves peak insanity whenever it’s going for the jugular, not the heartstrings. A slick, fast-paced, and hardcore cat-and-mouse game, Killers shares DNA with South Korean genre master’s Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil, and like that film, the Mo Brothers’ sophomore effort repeatedly hits like an uppercut. Hailing from Gareth Evans’ (a producer on the film) school of next-level Indonesian action cinema, Stamboel and Tjahjanto bring a Raid-like energy to Killers’ many elaborate set-pieces. The most impressive of which pits Antara’s Bayu against two potential rapists in a gunfight set inside a parked car, the camera remaining within the vehicle’s claustrophobic quarters the entire time. It’s brutal and breathless, a dizzying amalgamation of the directors’ longstanding H.G. Lewis tendencies and their undeniable, never-before-seen John Woo influence.

If Gareth Evans is currently Indonesia’s most celebrated genre filmmaker, the Mo Brothers are the most underrated. It’s easy to comprehend why—when your films depict atrocities like men forced to pleasure themselves as women are butchered and little kids stare at them, it’s tough to earn widespread critical acclaim. With Killers, though, Stamboel and Tjahjanto have introduced accessibility into their borderline-NC-17 repertoire without compromising their nastiest impulses.

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Weekend: May. 23, 2019, May. 26, 2019

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