cureEach victim is mutilated the same. The prostitute is bludgeoned, the cop is shot in the head, and he’s dead when it happens — an X carved into his neck. Each murder is the same, each killer different. A loving husband kills his wife. Then, in mourning, he dives out of a second-story window. A doctor performs an autopsy after killing her victim.

This is the set-up of what could have been a routine serial killer film. High concept is written all over it: the same crime committed by different people, none of them related. The heroes are a cop and a shrink, the villain inscrutable and very smart. In competent hands, this might be a good flick.

But Cure is a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, one that brought him international acclaim after a decade-and-a-half of direct-to-video (mostly yakuza flicks and cheapo horror films). He’s not interested in the merely titillating aspects of the story. He wants to delve more deeply into characters and the world they inhabit. Cure is about crime-solving, but we’re left with strange questions and even more unsettling answers.

Detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho) is trying to solve this unfathomable mystery. The crimes aren’t a problem — the killers are caught, they know what they did, and they admit intent before the fact. Takabe wants to know why.

Takabe is a workaholic, partly because he has no life at home. His wife is functionally insane. She goes to the convenience store and gets lost for hours. She leaves the dryer on with nothing inside. She leaves a steak out for Takabe, but forgets to cook it. For Takabe, everything is falling apart.

Kurosawa is understated and distant, which betters the impact of the visceral and emotional elements. In the first few scenes, we see a man walk the streets of Tokyo, head under a bridge, and pull a water pipe from the wall. Later, he gets out of bed where his prostitute sits, he gets the pipe, and he beats her to death. The scene is a long shot, dimly lit. No leering close-ups or manufactured suspense, just a short scene of terrible violence. We aren’t told what to feel; Kurosawa doesn’t force us to respond. Neutrality is his most potent tool. Almost never does he impose an emotional point of view. Instead, he relies on our internal sense of morals to provide the context. Given the implications of Cure‘s thematic concerns, this is a harrowing experience.

What’s remarkable, given the understatement, is how evocative the images are, and the menace squeezed from almost nothing. Look at Miyami’s entrance. First we get a shot of a beach: yellow, pretty — bland. Then a cloud moves overhead, and the beach darkens, slowly and completely. Cut to a man sitting on the beach. Back to the last shot, but now the shadowed form of a man standing, stock-still and out of focus. Again and again, with little more than a touch of shadow, Kurosawa creates instant foreboding.

Cure may disappoint those looking for another Se7en or Silence Of The Lambs. There’s no hunt for a killer. Almost effortlessly, he falls into the cop’s hands, and the confrontations with him are psychological. In fact, Takabe is the violent one. Miyami is mild.

Cure‘s focus on a decentralized evil makes it unique. Evil exists in Cure — there can’t be any other word for what the killers do. However, motives are murky to even them. Buried in the film is this message: Not only is everyone capable of evil (by itself a banal idea), everyone wants to do it. A tiny push, a minor easing of ethics, the slightest let-up in suppression: all these, and we can gladly and intentionally do the worst things imaginable.

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