People do foolish things for love, no matter their age, background, personality or experience. But there is something particularly poignant about romantic loneliness felt by those who have passed from youth, because their longing is matched with the notion that their time is finite, and they really don’t want to spend it alone. There is also the special heartbreak of losing a partner prematurely. Anybody in a long-term relationship must consider the prospect of one day outliving their partner. But when that day comes far sooner than expected, before that long life together has been realized, it carries a very special kind of grief that has a way of feeding our need to be loved once again. When we seek love because we need to replace a hole in our heart, we’re especially vulnerable to making bad decisions. And that’s the theme explored with uncommon humanity, warmth, patience—and eventually, madness, revulsion and violence—in Takashi Miike’s horror masterpiece, Audition.

The story takes place in modern-day Japan, a nation that this movie would have you believe suffers from a severe loneliness epidemic. Middle-aged widower Aoyama has lived alone ever since losing his wife seven years before. His son Shigehiko, now an adult, suggests that it’s time for Aoyama to start dating again, but shy Aoyama has no idea how to go about it. His friend Yoshikawa, a film producer, proposes an unethical solution meant as a harmless white lie if and when it might be discovered: he and Aoyama will stage a fake audition for a film role as a way to get Aoyama to meet a number of potential new partners without his shyness getting in the way. Aoyama is a successful manager, so he knows how to interview people; the big difference here is that he is interviewing them to become his wife. They just don’t know it yet. While it’s not exactly inviting the women who answer this casting call to the producer’s couch, it’s definitely speed dating under false pretenses. But Aoyama—who is otherwise a decent and likeable guy—goes along with it anyway out of lonely desperation, especially once he starts to think that this just might work. When he meets the lovely young Asami, it appears that it has.

The two begin dating, and Aoyama swiftly falls for Asami, whose apparent emotional depth speaks to Aoyama’s need for a mature partner with whom he can share more than a bed. Shigehiko tries to warn his father off her, however: he can sense that something about this woman that is not quite right. Aoyama won’t hear it, even as Yoshikawa tries to research Asami’s background and comes up with mysterious reports of men gone missing, only to be found later murdered and dismembered. Meanwhile, the more we get to know Asami, the more we realize she is deeply insane and clearly intends to inflict grievous harm on whomever she selects as her romantic partner. While we are still feeling a little icky over how Aoyama met Asami in the first place, that soon evaporates before the false pretense Asami puts forth as an innocent damsel seeking an older man to guide her through life’s travails. In reality, she is a black widow looking for somebody to fill her impossible romantic demands, and who, by her twisted logic, will deserve unspeakable torture when he inevitably fails to live up to expectations.

The movie gets unbelievably tense as we march inexorably towards a final act so disturbing that it practically inspired the torture porn genre singlehandedly. We watch through our fingers not because there are especially gruesome money shots in store, but because we genuinely care about the people about to be victimized. The only thing worse than watching somebody walk into a trap is knowing well in advance what kind of trap is waiting for them.

Audition is a slow-burning horror movie that spends more than half of its length taking its time to carefully examine its characters. The first acts are actually kind of funny and sweet as we get to know this poor guy who just wants to find somebody with whom to settle down once again. Yeah, he goes along with a skeevy scheme to find somebody, but how he proceeds once he is interested in somebody, and how he reacts when he realizes they might be interested in him, too, tends to make you forgive his indiscretion…or at least agree that his punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime. This is a horror movie with almost no jump scares, almost no typical suspense scenes. It is, instead, filled with a slowly ratcheting sense of dread that will test all but the hardiest of viewers.

The movie’s moment of truth is a truly frightening scene in which we finally get to see how Asami spends her days when not going on dates with Aoyama. It’s a scene in which we learn that Asami’s methods have come as the result of long practice, let’s put it that way. And as shocking as some of the reveals there may be, the moment works long afterward because it calls to mind just how impossible it is to truly know somebody when we are first romantically attracted to them. In any new relationship, we all take a leap of faith that this person who makes our heart sing won’t also be the one who makes it stop. Not everyone sticks the landing. On a long enough timeline, the chances of you having a first date with a  violent psychopath are 100%, and Audition isn’t about to let you forget that any time soon.

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