'Offenders' ('Izgrednici'): Film Review

Biberche Productions
Stylishly bleak neo-noir thrills from the Balkans.

An experiment in social engineering takes a sinister turn in Serbia's official Oscar submission.

The brutalist concrete architecture of Belgrade plays a leading role in this visually striking psycho thriller from Serbian director Dejan Zecevic. Offenders combines elements of horror, dystopian sci-fi, social commentary and film noir in a manner that recalls early David Cronenberg or Darren Aronofsky —indeed, Aronofsky's 1998 debut Pi is an obvious stylistic ancestor with its stark monochrome look, paranoid mood and pulsing electronic score.

Serbia submitted Offenders as its official contender for the best foreign language film Oscar race, but it did not make the final shortlist. It feels pulpy in places, with a sketchy plot and muddled character psychology. Even so, Zecevic has created an atmospheric hybrid of art house and pulp movie elements that could find a cult following among genre-friendly fans and viewing platforms.

Offenders looks great. Zecevic shoots in arty black and white and uses the boxy Academy ratio, which reinforces the story's claustrophobic backdrop of stark, geometrical, modernist architecture. This is New Belgrade, the high-rise concrete citadel that Serbian viewers will recognize as synonymous with criminal gangs and urban decay. But the screenplay avoids such cultural and geographical specifics, keeping the context as universal as possible.

The plot is driven by a controversial project led by radical sociology professor Slavko Zurovac (Svetozar Cvetkovic). Eager to prove his "Tetris theory," in which a degraded urban environment gives citizens permission to embrace their unspoken craving for anarchy and violence, Zurovac enlists a trio of star students to run field experiments on inner-city housing projects. While geeky Danijel (Mladen Sovilj) daubs neo-Nazi graffiti on the walls, Aleksandar (Radovan Vujovic) smashes street lights and Teodora (Marta Bjelica) blocks public walkways with rotting, maggot-crawling garbage. Each of the three then maintains clandestine round-the-clock video surveillance on their calculated acts of vandalism, patiently awaiting the arrival of a "statistical villain" to prove the professor's thesis.

Behind the scenes, rich girl Teodora is in a torrid relationship with blue-collar bad-boy Aleksandar. But she is also having a secret affair with professor Zurovac, newly pregnant and unsure which man is responsible. Aleksandar has problems at home with his widowed father, a feckless gambling addict, while the sullen Danijel struggles to care for his severely ill mother. Despite their diverse social and financial fortunes, all three seem to be living lives of quiet desperation.

As pressure builds on the trio to find some real offenders to prove the professor's theory, a sinister hooded figure starts appearing on their video footage. Meanwhile, the experiment appears to be having a transformative effect on the experimenters, leading them down a dark rabbit hole of mistrust, mental breakdown and murder. Zecevic seems to teasingly imply here that these aloof social engineers may themselves have been unwitting human lab rats all along.

Offenders ends in lethal violence and a chillingly hypocritical sermon about the debased morality of the younger generation. The barbed political subtext here will probably strike a deeper chord with Serbian audiences, but it resonates with outsiders too. Zecevic and screenwriter Djordje Milosavljevic could have given their nihilistic urban fairy tale more dramatic heft with richer character shading, higher stakes and a broader social canvas. But this eye-pleasing neo-noir thriller still works fine as a bleak detour into Black Mirror territory, a stylish urban nightmare of arresting monochrome imagery and spooky electronic noises.

Production companies: Biberche
Cast: Radovan Vujovic, Marta Bjelica, Mladen Sovilj, Radovan Vujovic
Director: Dejan Zecevic
Screenwriter: Djordje Milosavljevic
Producer: Nikolina Vucetic
Cinematographer: Miladin Colakovic
Editor: Milena Predic
Production designer: Zorana Petrov
Music: Nemanja Mosurovic, Luka Slavic
107 minutes