Introducing an unreliable protagonist at the start of a movie is a tricky proposition. On the one hand, it’s an instant mystery. Why doesn’t the main character have the full facts and what is the secret regarding his identity? He’s in the dark and so we’re in the dark, and together we’re trying to find out the truth. But that kinship with the protagonist is broken when we remember that while the main character may be trying to get to the truth, he can’t be trusted. Modus Anomali has to function on these dynamics, and they prove to be the film’s undoing. The premise allows for writer-director Joko Anwar to craft an intense thriller, but we have an escape route by knowing that the protagonist can’t be trusted. When Anwar finally makes his big reveal, we’re glad we were never too invested.
A man (Rio Dewanto) claws his way out of a shallow grave and finds himself in the middle of a jungle. He can’t remember anything, not even his name. Terrified and looking for a way out, he comes across a cabin with a car parked outside. He goes inside and finds a disturbing video waiting for him. The tape shows a pregnant woman being stabbed to death by a masked figure. Before he can even make sense of the horror, a mysterious figure comes to kill him and he must continue fighting for his survival. His terror is made worse when he learns that the woman was his wife and that his two kids are missing.
We learn that the man is an amnesiac within the first five minutes of the film and from there on, we can’t stop wondering what he’ll end up remembering. That reveal will change everything that came before and so we can’t become fully invested in the present. Instead of being caught up in the man’s terror, we’re always wondering what he’s hiding from us. But at the same time, giving the man a fractured psyche provides a nice addition to the predator-prey horror film. We want to unlock the mystery, but we know the mystery will somewhat invalidate everything that came before. If we’re to become invested in a false reality, we can’t know it’s a false reality. One could bring up Christopher Nolan‘s Memento as a counter-example, but that film throws multiple mysteries at us, and while we may not trust Leonard Shelby, the superb structure puts us firmly in his head instead of at a distance.
Anwar almost manages to close the distance in Modus by creating a technically masterful horror ride. With the exception of the dialogue looping, the sound design in Modus Anomali is tremendous. While some of the sound is used for jump scares, the majority is used to create tension and atmosphere. The mysterious figure is out in the woods, but Anwar isn’t building his sound design around the next attack. He’s building it around the man’s frantic search through the woods and what he learns along the way. Aside from waiting for the other shoe to drop regarding the secret behind the man’s amnesia, the only thing that breaks the tension is the bad performances from the actors who play the man’s kids.
But the tension is destroyed when we finally learn what happened to the man. Not only does it reaffirm our decision to distrust the man, but the reveal is painfully contrived and also invalidates the possibility of thoughtful subtext teased out of the first two acts. Anwar impressively manages to keep the tension alive, but it slowly drains away as the mystery is lost and the answer comes off as a checklist in order to explain everything that came before. It’s only slightly better than the end of Psycho when the doctor comes in and explains to the audience how Norman Bates was able to maintain the illusion that his mother was alive.
Without its amnesiac protagonist, Modus Anomali has no hook. With its amnesiac protagonist, it has no trust. Anwar does his best to make you forget that the man has amnesia, and he almost succeeds, but we’re too busy constructing solutions rather than being swallowed up by the horrific situation presented. And when the big mystery is revealed, it doesn’t blow you away or force you to reevaluate everything that came before. Modus Anomali manages to deliver thrills and chills for the majority of its runtime, but its climax elicits nothing more than a shrug and an “Oh. So that’s what happened.”
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