Chaos is a diabolically ingenious thriller, about as close to a perfect textbook example as you could get for this sort of thing. The director, Hideo Nakata, gave us the genuinely terrifying and highly influential Ring in 1999; here, a year or so later, he gives us a paranoid Hitchcockian labyrinth that's no less fascinating. Because any discussion of the movie is bound to produce spoilers, I will tread very lightly here.
The movie opens on the simplest possible note. A husband and wife are having a polite lunch at a French restaurant. He gets up to pay the bill; she steps outside, possibly for a smoke. When he returns, she's vanished. Curiously, he does not call the police, which is our first suspicious clue. Later that day at work, he gets a call: "Your wife has been kidnapped." "Can I talk to her?" the husband asks. "Not really; she's kind of out of breath. I just finished fucking her."
There's a ransom demand, of course, and the police get involved. He leaves with the police to deliver the ransom, wondering aloud about the crime in the car. "The perp might be watching now," the detective tells him. "Try not to talk to me." So far we have our suspicions that somehow the husband is responsible, but nothing to confirm it. He seems concerned enough — if it weren't for the nonchalant way he dealt with his wife's actual vanishing. (I wondered at this point if the movie was in fact going to follow the example of the great Dutch thriller of the same name, The Vanishing, in which a desperate husband follows his wife's kidnapper right off the deep end.)
Then Chaos begins to do something really interesting. The story's told out of sequence, skipping freely back and forth through time, splitting off into parallel stories that show what everyone has been doing, or how they got to a particular moment. We see the kidnapper's end of the story, cleverly introduced through a tangential blackmailing plot, and then realize he may be as much of a victim as the husband. We see the wife and her side of things, and we also see a few other characters about which the less said, the better.
From this point on it becomes virtually impossible to talk about the plot without ruining just about all of the movie's key secrets, so I will say nothing further. I will say that there are several amazing plot twists, all of which are integral to the movie and none of which ruin its overall impact; this isn't one of those films like Basic Instinct where plot twists are piled on top of each other for their own sake and every clue can be read one of two ways. Like Diabolique, the film must be seen to be appreciated; a mere plot description would only be confusing. The execution is everything. A more conventional movie would not only try to tell the story in chronological order, but would probably miss out on so many of the little hints that come from setting things up this way.
Because the sections of the story are arranged and written so cleverly, we don't need title cards or other narrative crutches to make sense of everything. The presence (or absence) of critical clues — especially a wound on one character's hand, the explanation of which is vital to the plot — and key lines of dialogue help snap everything neatly into place. This leads to a kind of "aha!" effect, where we suddenly realize halfway through a scene not only what's going on but what it means to the story as a whole. Also, like a number of other recent Asian movies (including The Ring, also a Nakata movie), Chaos has been licensed for an overseas remake, with Benicio del Toro, a favorite actor of mine, cast as the kidnapper. I went into the movie knowing this information, and it's curious how much the Japanese actor who plays the kidnapper himself resembles del Toro.
Nakata pitches the acting and performances at a consistently low key; everyone is collected and halfway calm. There's only one real eruption of violence in the whole movie, but it's essential to the plot. His visual style is also toned down: in Ring, there were bursts of wild camerawork when the movie demanded it, but Chaos is uniformly sedate. The structure is complexity enough for most people, and it doesn't need hyped visuals to punch it up.
"Hitchcockian" is an adjective I often refrain from using, but this time the movie earns it. The vast majority of Hitchcock's movies were all about the same thing: how ordinary people find danger erotic. Chaos has much of the same flavor, although I'd anticipate an argument as to just how "ordinary" many of the people in this film are, given their actions. The movie also skimps on the motivations of at least one key character, who becomes a homicidal maniac without any real explanation. There is also the possibility that this is part of the movie's own strategy: Psychology is nothing. Mere behavior is everything. Doubly so given what we learn about another major character. (If my discussion is frustrating to you because of its lack of details, it's doubly frustrating for me, since I swear never to give away the best parts of any movie beforehand.)
If the film has any real flaw, it's in the ending, as with most movies. The director backs himself into something of a corner, and then chooses to close things off in a way that's frustratingly inconclusive. The film just stops, as if a key couple of final moments were never filmed — or edited out. That's unfortunate, because for most of its length Chaos is enthralling in a way very few movies even manage to aim for.