Imagine a film where a large bull water buffalo escapes from a butcher shop and proceeds to terrorize the countryside around a small village. Sounds like thrills along the lines of Razorback or Boar doesn’t it? Now, what if I said that the rampaging beast was the most sympathetic character in the film? That it’s as much about the violence and brutality people are capable of committing against each other as it is about killer animals? That describes Jallikattu, the latest film from Indian director Lijo Jose Pellissery.
A montage set to the ticking of an old-fashioned mechanical clock introduces us to the village and its inhabitants. Showing them as they wake and go about their day. Come nightfall however everything will change. Kalan Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose) and his assistant Antony (Antony Varghese) bungle the slaughter of a water buffalo meant for the wedding feast of a local businessman’s daughter. Much damage to local property ensues.
This, in turn, starts a chain of gossip and recriminations as old grudges, debts, and accusations boil to the surface. Crops and even stores are destroyed, villagers are attacked. The locals are unable to bring down the beast. So Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad), a local bandit is called in to help. He and Anthony have issues dating back to a rivalry over a woman. Other would-be hunters show up, attracted by the thoughts of fame and free meat.
Jallikattu subverts the basic idea of the animal on a rampage film and turns the examination back on those hunting the beast. It’s as much about the breakdown of civilization, (or at least this village), and the brutality and toxic masculinity that lie just under the surface. And I’m not just tossing toxic masculinity out as a buzzword. These guys take their sense of machismo to some very unhealthy, and deadly, extremes.
Like Jaws or even Alien for that matter, we don’t see much of the creature. But when we do the scenes are well shot and quite tense. Especially a confrontation in some dense forest. The choreography and editing of these scenes are excellent. There’s also some excellent use of things like dense undergrowth, the interior of a store, etc to give a feeling of claustrophobia. Being trapped on the wrong end of a water buffalo’s horns is not a good feeling. And it’s one that Jallikattu exploits skillfully.
There are also several beautiful night shots of the pursuit. Long shots with the villager’s torches looking like swarms of fireflies. The swarms grow bigger as more and more people are swept up in the madness of the hunt.
It all leads to a finale that is both absurd to the point of comical and absolutely terrifying at the same time. Which to a degree also describes Jallikattu as a whole. Seeing things escalate the way they do seems funny. Until you realize that much the same things, (hopefully minus the water buffalo), are playing out in your town as well.
Jallikattu is currently on the festival circuit and will play the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival on Friday, November 22