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Simon Read [Celluloid 07.03.17] Republic of Macedonia drama crime

Amok is a twisty thriller from Poland, based on real events surrounding the case of Krystian Bala, an author whose 2003 novel “Amok” prompted Polish police to reopen an unsolved murder case from several years before. Details within the book which only the murderer could know about suddenly made Bala a major suspect. The following investigation resulted in Bala's conviction and incarceration for murder in a story which really is stranger than fiction. The film adaptation of this real-life crime story is solidly crafted, if slightly baggy and more than a little dreary. It does, however, contain two strong performances from its central characters, and the gloomy atmosphere and somber tone help make it a decent addition to the recent spate of crime-thrillers coming out of northern Europe.

The film is told from two perspectives, that of the unstable Bala - played by Mateusz Kosciukiewicz as one of the creepiest guys I've seen on screen for a while, and that of Inspector Jacek Sokolski, played by Lukasz Simlat as a burnt-out cop with a messy divorce and a history of alcohol abuse. Sounds like familiar territory? What saves this from becoming a routine crime-drama is simply how unbelievable Bala's actions appear, as he uses the reopened case to generate media attention and increase sales of his book, while playing endless mind games with the bewildered Jacek.

Beginning with flashbacks to Bala's time spent writing the novel, we see his grotesque fantasies coming to life in his mind as he horribly murders a woman, strangling her before hacking her to pieces. When his wife knocks on the door to announce dinner, we see that it's just a process for Bala, he is, in fact, sitting as his computer typing out a novel later described as "pure evil" by several critics.

Bala is obsessed with Nietzsche's concept of the ubermensch (of course his is!) and sees his fictional victims as simulacrum of real people, referencing Baudrillard's postmodern treatise on symbols and their meanings. Clearly, he believes himself above all others, and when initially contacted by Jacek, the two have a discussion regarding the Eye of God - Jacek is, despite his disastrous personal life, a man who lives in a universe with an absolute moral structure. Bala is not.

The pair travels together to Jacek's family cabin in the countryside in an effort to discuss the book and its similarities to the old murder case (in the world of the film the victim was a wealthy architect, as opposed to the small business owner in real-life). These scenes are intriguing, as the pair size one another up, walk through the woods, reveal information about their lives (Bala is now divorced, his ex-wife too upset by the book's content and the case surrounding it) and almost becoming friends. It's only when Bala finally confesses his guilt verbally to Jacek that the film really takes off. He is immediately taken into custody and becomes famous overnight, but refuses to sign a confession (he eats it) and due to lack of evidence is released back into freedom. Jacek's mission becomes clear. He needs to find solid evidence within the pages of Amok to convict Bala. But now the suspect is famous, with sales of his grisly book increasing wildly.

Amok is filled with symbolism, mainly involving devils, goat's heads and allusions to evil and dark, post-modern philosophical theories straight out of the the abyss. It's a slow-burn film, often told in non-linear fashion with flashbacks increasingly revealing elements of both central characters lives, until the inevitable revelation which ties them together as "not so different." The direction by Kasia Adamik, a veteran of film and television, is solid and efficient, and the film contains a dark palette, moving through a story shrouded in shadows and fog.

What singles Amok out as worth a watch would definitely be the performance by Kosciukiewicz as Bala. It's not subtle, and he seems to be channeling Daniel Bruhl with all his might, but as cinematic murder suspects go, he's one with whom you would not want to share a hotel room. His intense gaze, occasional, emotional outbursts and obsession with status and the dark side of man's nature make him a memorable villain. Similarly, Simlat as Jacek hits the right notes, a flawed but determined cop with a job to do - we're on his side.

Having assumed this was all fiction, I left the screening wondering if the writer had just taken the plot from Dario Argento's giallo, Tenebrae. These are strikingly similar films in terms of plot, though not in style, with Amok feeling far more akin in tone to something like Fassbinder's Why Does Herr R Run Amok. But reading about the case itself is fascinating. From what I gather about the book, Amok, it seems to reflect Bala's obsessions, with most reviews dismissing it was adolescent pseudo-philosophical trash.

I certainly won't be rushing out to by a copy of Bala's book (though it is now available in several languages, thanks to the infamy of the case) but I'm happy I caught the film.

Recommended Release: Tenebrae

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frances (4 years ago) Reply

Your review makes it a must see to ascertain if I can spot the philosophical nuances - may be a bit horrific for me though. How well written your reviews are, have now caught up on your choices for EIFF and will resist seeing The Bad Kids from ... etc!

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