Psycho killer

Austere objectivity ups the creep quotient in Japanese thriller

It's that time of year again. The holidays are lurching steadily toward us, and the multiplexes are going to swell to the bursting point with escapist romps and sentimental feel-gooders. What's more, what with the war and anthrax and all, this year's rising Yule-tide of treacle will doubtless include a bumper crop of films designed to stir our patriotism and sooth our troubled hearts.

Despite its therapeutic title, Cure is not one of them. If high fantasy and holiday cheer give you a pain, though, this unsettled, unnerving, unconventional thriller might just be good for what ails you.

Originally released way back in 1997, Cure comes to us from Japan (the Japanese title is Kyua; say it five times fast and hey presto, you know Japanese!). Its writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a part-time film-school instructor, has graduated from churning out the kind of low-budget gangster flicks and soft-core that is the lot of novice directors to producing thoughtful thrillers and atmospheric horror pics. While Kurosawa enjoys a substantial following as a creepy, David Lynchian cult director, off the festival circuit his work is almost unknown in the West. Better late than never, though, for a film as good as this.

Koji Yakusho, who also led arthouse hits such as Shall We Dance? and The Eel, plays Takabe, a Tokyo detective with an ailing wife who struggles to solve a series of brutal, apparently motiveless murders. Ordinary citizens and pillars of the community — elementary school teachers, cops, doctors — are butchering co-workers and total strangers. What makes these random massacres more disturbing is that all of the novice murderers seem to have the same M.O., as if the same mind is behind all the carnage.

Takabe and his police profiler pal Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) eventually find the missing link, an amnesiac drifter (Masato Hagiwara) obsessed with hypnotism who spent time with each of the killers before they committed their crimes. But how can a man who can't remember his own name compel someone to kill? And how can the police stop a remote-control killer with no direct ties to the crime?

It's a nice, twisty plot and a rock-solid set-up for a Seven-y psycho-thriller — a troubled cop, a slippery villain, mesmerizing performances, blood-red herrings and meaty murders thrown in along the way. But between Kurosawa and Yakusho, Cure is a whole lot more.

Yakusho turns in a tour de force performance, giving the audience glimpses of the tiny cracks in his psyche that gradually grow to grand canyons under the combined pressure of being both a civil servant and a caring husband. His transformation from poker-faced flatfoot to obsessive avenger recalls the carefully modulated volcanics of a young Jack Nicholson — you remember, before he sucked.

Yakusho's expert shifts from low key into high syncopates beautifully with Kurosawa's work behind the camera. The director plays scrupulously straight with his material, eschewing any cinematographic bells and whistles and relying primarily on long takes shot from a distance. Scenes of graphic violence, which here in the States tend to be sensationally shot and edited with a blender, are given a kind of austere objectivity in Cure. We see them, as it were, from a distance that makes the murders all the more shocking.

Further frustrating the expectations created by decades of psycho-killer pics, the audio track refuses to give us a heads-up when heads are about to roll. The music, what there is of it, is usually archly contradictory to the image; no shrieking violins amp up the action here. Kurosawa makes us just stand well back and watch, helpless.

The resulting style (or understylization) highlights the casualness of the crimes and the ordinariness of the killer. Violence here is something that lies dormant in everyone, something that might erupt at any time. Mayhem is intrinsic and epidemic, a force woven into the very fabric and foundation of society here. And as the film's infuriating lack of closure emphasizes, prevention is a problem and a cure, perhaps impossible.

The Cure screens Dec. 9 at 6 p.m. at General Cinema Parkway Pointe Theater, 3101 Cobb Parkway. Admission $7.50 ($6.50 for PFS members). 770-729-8487. www.peachtreefilm.org.??