Villain (2017)

Villian is kind of an odd film. A product of “Mollywood,” the Malayalam-language subset of the Indian film industry–it borrows liberally from the cliches of western crime dramas, but seems less interested in delivering taut suspense than in exploring the emotional and philosophical positions of its central characters. The results are interesting but decidedly mixed. The film is long (153 minutes), slow, and in many ways predictable, but is also full of enough stylistic and narrative flourishes to keep it loping toward its meditative conclusion.

At the center of the story is star ADGP (a high-ranking police designation) Matthew Manjooran (Mohanlal, quite the star as I understand it), about to retire from the force after a family tragedy who, naturally, gets roped into a last case with deeply personal connections. Though he bounces ideas off other members of his elite task force, including trusted sidekick Iqbal (Chemban Vinod Jose) and rookie investigator Harshita (Raashi Khanna), the central concern of the film is the conflict between Matthew’s pain and his ideals. Mohanlal is able to carry off this conflict, anchoring the film’s quiet (and best) moments with excruciating restraint seemingly as effortlessly as he throws out some sweet moves during several–tonally-unexpected but nonetheless fun and dynamic–action sequences.

On the other side of the table is Dr. Shaktivel Palanisamy (Vishal). He’s obviously meant to be Matthew’s moral and intellectual inverse, but in very broad strokes that don’t completely land. Writer/director B Unnikrishnan only gives him a cursory, mostly-narrated backstory that doesn’t leave much psychological weight or sympathetic connection, so the link between his past trauma and his actions feels loose at best. Some of this is down to Vishal’s unsubtle performance–by contrast Hansika Motwani wrings more out of less as his girlfriend/partner Shreya–some of it is the script, but in the end it takes a lot of the impact out of the film’s central conflict.

This would be less of a problem if there were more narrative tension and, at first, it feels like that’s the direction things are going to go. The opening sequence of murders and its connection to the frantic, Burkah-clad woman Harshita encounters in a cafe sets up a tantalizing mystery. But they’re followed by a number of twists and subplots which don’t deepen that mystery so much as spin it out into a complex, corrupted web. To the story’s credit, everything does hang together and no detail is extraneous, but so much is crammed in that information ends up a little muddled without any space to misdirect attention or leave the audience much room to wonder.

Stylistically the film is kind of all over the place, but is more interesting for it. The musical asides–a staple of Indian cinema but potentially very jarring for those unused to such–range from the usual sun-dappled dancing in the mountains to a chaotic rock club to a hallucinatory dream. These exist on a similar register to the aforementioned fight scenes sprinkled throughout which feature a relentlessly circling camera, stuttering motion effects, and elaborate choreography. Even when it’s not totally jumping out of its skin, the film moves between a light investigative tone–eg: the interactions the team has with a pair of hapless drug dealers/thugs–and deeply serious character study. It’s in these latter moments that the film really succeeds–an extended/recurring bedside hospital sequence stands out particularly in memory–but the mishmash itself is oddly engaging. The identity and motivations of the killer are obvious and bluntly revealed, but one still never quite feels certain of what the film is going to do next.

It’s hard film to recommend because it’s not really completely successful on any of its fronts–it’s tepid as a thriller, confused as a character study, meandering and distracted as a crime drama, overly simple as a philosophical conversation. But it’s worth noting the ambition necessary to┬átry to be all those things. And with the help of a strong central performance, there’s enough pathos and style to make it an interesting curiosity and certainly refreshingly different from the detached grit of its occidental generic counterparts.