Indonesian director Joko Anwar has quite a reputation for subverting genre rules and turning them on their heads. For fans of unique genre cinema, Anwar has become something of a hero for his daring and individual approach to cinema. Personally, while there is no denying that the man has significant talent, I have yet to find one of his films that has come properly together to work as a whole. Within his films (particularly “The Forbidden Door”) Anwar comes up with some brilliant scenes but overall I find his films never come together as they should and they even end up becoming a little sloppy. “Modus Anomali” is Anwar’s latest film and even though it has been receiving middling to mixed reviews, I thought that I would still take a chance on it and see if this would be the film that would change my mind about this director.
The film opens in what appears to be a very isolated section of a forest. The camera continually pans over the environment until a hand suddenly explodes from underneath the dirt. A man then feverishly starts to dig himself out from the shallow grave that he has obviously been buried in. He is panicked and the first thing he attempts to do is call the authorities for help but when the line is answered he suddenly realizes that he has no memory; he doesn’t know where he is, he doesn’t know his name, and he has no idea how he got to be in the situation he is in now. He hangs up the phone and searches his wallet where he finds his driver’s license which indicates that his name is “John Evans”. Looking through the wallet further he comes across a photo of a woman with two teenage kids. On the back of the photo the words “We love you, John” are written and making it obvious that John is married with two kids. Still a nervous mess, John keeps moving through the forest when it suddenly hits him; where is his family? Were they taken too or has something just as bad happened to them? Immediately the stakes have risen as not only is John worried about getting out of this forest alive, he must now worry about whether or not he must search for his family too. Soon enough, John comes across an unoccupied (but lived in) cabin where he sees a video camera attached to a television with the words “PLAY ME” stuck to it. Hesitantly he pushes the play button only to witness images of his pregnant wife being brutally murdered by an unknown assailant. He is mortified and realizes he must find his kids and heads back out into the forest to search for them. However things suddenly become a lot more dangerous for John when his captors realize that they have failed in their attempts at killing him and begin to hunt him down once more.
For the majority of the first half of “Modus Anomali”, the film is quite suspenseful and intriguing. We know as little as John does when the film starts and we are learning things the same time as him, so as each revelation comes to light we feel what he feels. However, “Modus Anomali” is a film that has been made only to service its third act twist and because of this I ended up reacting strongly against it. For those wanting to go into this film with as little knowledge as possible, fear not, I am not going to reveal the twist, but I will say that anyone who is familiar with “Memento” will not find it hard to work it out early in the film. Before the twist is officially revealed though, it is an easy enough film to like. It is dialogue light mainly due to the fact that we are following one character and really it is just a guy wondering around a forest, but due to the fact that we know nothing about what is actually going on, it works at creating a successful atmosphere.
Rio Dewanto is excellent early on portraying a man who has no idea what is going on and terrified by the fact that he may never see his family again. He really does give the impression that he is scared the whole time and the way he breaks down after watching the video of his wife’s brutal murder also rang true. The fact that this part of the film is almost dialogue free helps Dewanto enormously because while the film is an Indonesian film, it was actually shot in English, which was a decision that ultimately haunts the film. The second half of the film includes a lot more dialogue and sadly all of the actors struggle to emote properly using the English language, particularly Dewanto. He suddenly goes from being very believable to unbearably bad and yet it is not his fault. I must admit that I am sick of foreign productions having to film in English so to appeal to a broader (ie. American) audience. It rarely works and the film ultimately loses its national identity too. While it is true that I did not like “Modus Anomali” after the twist, it would have been much more bearable if the dialogue was spoken in the actor’s native Indonesian.
Another thing that I really reacted strongly against was the very manipulative camera work. The way the camera constantly moved in an attempt to portray somebody’s point of view was very misleading and as I just said, manipulative. You get the opinion that poor John is being constantly watched by someone in very close proximity to him but it always turns out to be not the case. I particularly hated the shots where the camera would hide behind a tree and then peer out; it was a very cheap attempt at creating tension and is akin to a jump scare in a horror film. One effective scene that I did very much like was one when John, in an attempt to hide from (this time) a very real assailant, hides in a giant chest only to be locked in it and it then to be set on fire. That was a scene that had real terror associated with it and because of that I really loved the scene (can you imagine being trapped in such a small space and then realize that the thing was on fire also?).
As I have mentioned already, I really reacted strongly against the twist in “Modus Anomali”, mainly because in hindsight I realized that the whole film only exists because of its reveal. Without the twist, there is almost no movie (well, at least that is what it appears the filmmakers thought). Once we understand exactly what is going on, the rest of what we have witnessed suddenly feels very orchestrated and I felt a little cheated. As I have said a number of times regarding “Modus Anomali”, it felt incredibly manipulative. Once the truth has come to light, it makes little sense and we are never given any real credible reason as to why anyone is doing what they are doing, which makes the film incredibly frustrating. The fact that the film relies on how you react to the twist, it makes it very hard to review it without spoiling it, so unfortunately I cannot go into it any deeper than I have already. Let’s just say that I had a huge problem with character motivations.
Overall, while “Modus Anomali” started strong, I felt that it went downhill pretty quickly and I ended up not enjoying the film much at all. The main word I would use to describe the film is manipulative, and the decision to shoot the film in English was one that ultimately hurt the film more than it helped. I think if the film had continued down the path it had initially set for itself without the twist, it would’ve been much stronger for it, as it is though, I found “Modus Anomali” a bit of a mess and once again I was less than impressed by Joko Anwar’s attempts at putting all the pieces together to make a great film as a whole.