Jallikattu is an all-around abrasive viewing experience, but with enough satisfying chaos and visual bravado to make it worth a watch.
Jallikattu begins with the sounds of people sleeping. It is both a strangely calming and eerie opening, a contrast of the chaos to come. We then witness the myriad villagers live out their day in a fast-paced montage. The butcher sells meat. A cop beats his wife. Then, ten minutes in, a buffalo escapes from the butcher at the start of the next day, bringing about an escalation of violence and depravity that no one in the village foresees. The first ten minutes of the film set up the complex web of characters and storylines that are going to be explored and torn apart throughout the ensuing eighty minutes.
Director Lijo Jose Pellissery conducts his huge ensemble of actors in a symphony of yells and shouts, showcasing a performative masculinity that attempts to assert itself over all others. These men set out to first capture, then kill the buffalo, but are proven to be sorely incompetent. This is a film bursting with the clashing of egos that tends to be an abrasive and trying viewing experience. But Pellissery is well aware of this, purposefully choosing to amplify the vexed masculinity of his characters at such ear-piercing levels that no viewer can misunderstand his critique. Throughout the chase of this buffalo that the men think is innately inferior to them, their true, animalistic forms are shown. They are arguably more like an animal than the buffalo. All of this comes to a head in Jallikattu’s harrowing climax, a twenty minute sequence of bodies flying, blood spurting, and the shouts of the men becoming so distorted as to resemble the screeches of some ancient creatures.
The film’s climax is immensely satisfying, exploding in a frenzy of violence that leaves the viewer completely enthralled with the spectacle taking place. However, the middle hour of the film seems unfocused. The number of characters it introduces and explores is near-overwhelming. It is also a slower-burn than expected. For most of Jallikattu, the havoc the buffalo creates takes a backseat to the grudges between several of the characters, most notably Antony (Antony Varghese) and Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad). Antony is a laborer in the village who attempts to lead the crusade against the buffalo and Kuttachan is an old rival and law-breaking renegade. Kuttachan’s return to the village in order to help hunt the rogue buffalo reignites an old beef between them.
There are many other characters and small-storylines that it is almost impossible to count, making the slim 90 minute running time feel enormously dense. One that sticks out involves a local police officer who tells the villagers that there is nothing the law can do to help them cage the buffalo. This is also where another one of the film’s commentaries comes into play, as it takes a brief look at the bureaucracies in place that cannot, and will not help the villagers in a time of peril. Later on in the film, that same cop is accused by the people of not helping them and starts to physically assault them. The critique is clear: the police will not serve or protect them.
Visually, Pellissery and cinematographer Girish Gangadharan utilize smooth steadicam shots throughout the film, placing the viewer amidst the commotion. During scenes featuring the buffalo, Gangadharan switches to a handheld style which accentuates the intensity of these sequences. The moments where the camera is handheld feel much more visceral than the steadicam shots, which comprise a majority of the movie. If the filmmakers relied more on a handheld technique, the overall experience might have been more exciting, but the steadicam has a distancing effect from the chaos taking place. Nevertheless, the camerawork during the most action-packed sequences swaggers with a sense of bravado, especially the stunning drone shots that capture the scope of the turmoil.
Jallikattu is a difficult film to pin down. It overwhelms with its numerous characters, plot-lines, and abrasive sound design, dense with the near-constant shouts of men and percussive, pulsating score by Prashant Pillai. And yet, it is an unmistakable example of in-your-face-filmmaking, so volatile and thrilling in its best moments that its misteps when it comes to plot seem almost inconsequential. Even with its uneven pacing and unfocused narrative, the final twenty minutes deliver on the movie’s promise of violent, unhinged brutality, ultimately making it a gripping watch.