Paranoia grips the characters and saturates the screen in Emin Alper’s “Frenzy,” a deliberately oppressive parable of a society brought to heel by its fear of terrorism. One of the more topical films of the year, this intense mind-playing psycho-social drama, from the director of “Beyond the Hill,” plunges the viewer into a disturbing state of uncertainty in which two brothers — one a paroled convict secretly recruited to ferret out terrorists, the other hired to kill stray dogs — are sucked into a vortex of state-sponsored distrust. Echoes of the current situation in Turkey and the Middle East come through loud and clear, and while “Frenzy” isn’t an easy sit, it’s certain to see a flurry of fest notices.
With his first feature, Alper made things uncomfortable, but with this, his second, he ups the ante in terms of social critique as well as audience unease. It’s not just the plot and structure, which toy with reality and nightmare until it becomes difficult to tell them apart while the action is happening. But the very look and sound of the film tangibly create an acute sense of psychic claustrophobia, thanks to the steely darkened tonalities and inescapable banging noises and alarms. Put together, they create a sensory feeling of persecution as meaningful as it is arduous.
The location is an unnamed shantytown on the outskirts of Istanbul, and the time is either the future or a potential present (which are, perhaps, one and the same). After 20 years in prison, Kadir (Mehmet Ozgur, “Beyond the Hill”) is released on parole provided he does the state a service: He’s trained to recognize bomb-making equipment and employed as a garbage collector, enabling him to identify potential threats in peoples’ detritus. He’s posted to his former neighborhood, where younger brother Ahmet (Berkay Ates) works for the city shooting stray dogs. Ahmet’s wife recently ankled with their kids, leaving the lonely man slightly unhinged.
In this environment, it doesn’t take much to make people unbalanced. The news is full of terrorist attacks, and closer to home, the vibrations from ground-trembling trucks, paired with not-so-distant explosions, create an ever-burgeoning atmosphere of fear. At first Ahmet is thrilled to see his brother, and Kadir rents a few rooms nearby from Ali (Ozan Akbaba) and Meral (Tulin Ozen). Warm and welcoming, the couple are the sole element of friendship in the grim landscape.
Kadir develops an unreciprocated attraction to Meral; when she and Ali leave, he convinces himself they’re part of a terrorist cell. He’s also wondering about Ahmet, who’s isolated himself in his home and is using a pickax to create a new doorway while walling up the one nearby. In addition, Ahmet has taken in a dog he was meant to kill but only wounded, reasoning he’ll nurse it back to health and then let it go.
Meanwhile, more and more police are entering the neighborhood, setting up street barriers (the original lingo title means “blockade”). The district feels increasingly empty of inhabitants and under siege, which augments Ahmet’s rocketing distrust of everything around him except, ironically, the dog. Threats from Kadir’s overseer Mr. Hamza (Mufit Kayacan) increase pressure on him to root out terrorists, and his delusional nightmares are getting longer. Paranoia has made one of Ahmet’s enemies (dogs), his sole friend, and Kadir’s friends, his enemies. Of course, turning people against each other is the perfect way for a State to maintain control.
Alper’s imagining of a near-apocalyptic landscape (a nighttime market here looks like something out of “Blade Runner”) is familiar and yet frighteningly depopulated: This may not be our home, but it’s a recognizable place seen in news reportages, and the glimpsed graffiti, “Check Points Mean Isolation! Stop the Blockade,” could come from any number of current hot spots. Garbage set alight at night adds to the atmosphere of fear, along with explosions and the arrival of faceless police as occupying forces. Insistent bangs on metal doors, rumbling trucks that rattle buildings as much as nerves, bells with nonstop clangs, all contribute to a permanent state of unease, conducive to delusion.
Visuals are as attuned to this escalating atmosphere of madness as the ever-intense stares of actors Ozgur and Ates. A limited palette of blacks and browns, with shadow often enveloping much of the frame, are pierced by shafts of light that offer no salvation. Little distinguishes nightmare from reality, both equally violent. Noted Romanian scripter Razvan Radulescu is intriguingly credited as consultant.