Modus Anomali, released in America as Ritual, is a 2012 Indonesian thriller directed and written by Joko Anwar. Joko Anwar is probably Indonesia's leading filmmaker - he not only has a good eye for visual composition, but a command of narrative and style that allows him to jump around between genres with fluency. This means his films are a lot more nuanced, and very different, from the sappy romances and B-horror schlock you typically find in Indonesian theaters. Now, I don't want to play an armchair psychologist or anything, but it seems to me that a lot of his work taps what is probably best described as a messed up inner monologue to craft subversive and disturbing stories that break from convention in surprising and interesting ways. And that is a good thing.
Modus Anomali is a pretty good example of this synergy between style and narrative, and it definitely isn't afraid to indulge in twisted fantasies. The film clocks in around 90 minutes, and it is a lean, largely wordless thriller that takes place entirely in a forest. It opens with some beautiful shots of morning light streaming through the forest canopy while the sounds of nature lure you into a sense of ease - only to be jarred out of this false calm by a man's hand breaking through the ground Carrie-style as he crawls out of his own grave. This man is actor Rio Dewanto, and he has no memory of who or where he is. He spends the rest of the film's run-time trying to piece together what happened, while being pursued by a murderous killer.
There are a series of clues that have been scattered around the forest - an empty cabin, a snuff film, some camcorder footage of a family vacation - and the audience is carried along with Dewanto as he fights for his life while trying to reconstruct the events that got him into this in the first place. This is quite a simple premise, and one that has been done before, so the film really requires an engaging and interesting visual style to keep it from dragging. I mean, how many shots of a confused guy stumbling around in the forest screaming the F-word every now and then can the audience take before they get bored?
This is where Joko Anwar's skill a visual stylist really helps keep the momentum from flagging. The first 60-minutes is basically an extended cat-and-mouse game in a dark forest, but the movie's confident style gives everything a paranoid feel that keeps the audience guessing. There are a lot of long, unbroken takes that help ratchet up the tension - the longer the take runs without the camera cutting away the more you start to anticipate that something is going to break into the frame from off-screen wielding a machete (incidentally, this dude has a pretty natural feel for a good scare - just look what he did with a bell and an old woman in Pengabdi Setan).
They also play around with point-of-view in interesting ways, like a scene early on where Dewanto is looking around inside a car. The camera suddenly cuts to a POV shot that pops out form behind the edge of a cabin and tracks in on his unsuspecting back while he roots around in the car. In the typical language of film, this would mean the murderer is rushing up to stab him. But when the shot cuts back to the car interior, there is no one there. These kind of visual games are very Hitchcockian - he liked to fake-out the audience with POV trickery too - and they enhance the film's sense of paranoia and make everything feel off-balance. You can't trust what you are seeing.
When the film, in its final act, finally starts delivering some answers this is where Anwar reveals the inner twisted depths of his own mind. I won't spoil it, but the twist is Shyamalan-worthy. Actually, that's not fair. It's better than most Shyamalan twists, and a lot more disturbing. But it also shows that the narrative structure of the film was very carefully constructed. It might have seemed at first like it was just a dude running around in the dark like a nut, but in fact it's constructed in such a way that once the ending is revealed, you can go back and re-watch the movie in a completely different way, just like with The Usual Suspects.
Anwar first broke into the film industry as a screenwriter, and I think that shows in a lot of his films. They are visually inventive and clever, but the stylistic touches are deployed in service of a well-constructed and compelling narrative. He understands how to tell a good story, and how to use the visual language of cinema to enhance the story. That is probably why he is so adept at playing around in different genres - because even as the genre conventions might change, the basics of good story-telling are constant. Moreover, he is not afraid to really look deep into his brain and think of the most messed up, twisted thing if it will make for a good story. I don't know what happened to Joko Anwar in his childhood, but whatever is driving these wicked fantasies I would say it's overall a good thing for Indonesian cinema.