Cure (1997) is the first film by writer-director Kiyoshi (no relation to Akira) Kurosawa to get a theatrical release in the United States and it’s a nicely nasty little number which deftly plays out astride art-house moodiness and genre cheap thrills. It has a neat hook: a serial killer who murders by proxy, hypnotizing people who commit the foul deeds, and a wonderful central performance which helps the viewer ease past its many implausibilities.

The basic elements are familiar — an evil genius who seems to be untouchable, even in captivity; a vulnerable investigator who gets way too close to the wily perp — but Kurosawa has no intention of painting by the numbers. His Det. Takabe (Koji Yakusho), burdened with a mentally unstable wife, is less a heroic sufferer than a desperate man who takes foolish chances while the serial manipulator, Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), seems both creepy and harmless — he’s a mad killer in a minimalist mode.

One of the more effective conceits of the film is that although Mamiya uses the requisite bright light as a focal point for his hypnotizing (preferring the flame of a cigarette lighter), it quickly becomes apparent that his manner is part of the process. Withdrawn, soft-spoken and in a perpetual slouch of disinterest, he answers every question with an echoing question, deflecting his victims’ attempts to assert themselves while simultaneously drawing their concentration toward his small, still presence. By the time he whips out the cigarette lighter, they’re already halfway under.

Cure doesn’t quite solve the problem of resolving an excellent premise and, as its mysteries start to reveal their secrets, the film becomes slightly ridiculous. But Kurosawa has a solid grip on the story’s disorienting mood and keeps the screws turned tight, even as we descend into the silliness of a secret history of Mesmerism. It’s the director’s unrelenting control and Hagiwara’s extraordinary performance as the etiolated soul conjuror that make the film a singularly unsettling experience. Which, as any fan of serial-killer movies will tell you, is a good thing.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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