Malayalam director Lijo Jose Pellissery takes us on a frenzied spiral into the heart of darkness in his latest blood-pumping thrill ride Jallikattu. As the opening title cards explain, the Indian tradition of the Jallikattu is a spectacle in which brave participants cling to a bull’s back and try to ride it as long as possible, or in some instances to remove flags from its horns. Pellissery’s film finds him exploring a more allegorical strand with the tradition’s premise. His story, set in the hilly and wooded regions of Kerala, involves a wild buffalo that breaks free before the local butcher can kill it. The wild beast begins carving a path of destruction in the village, forcing everyone in the area to band together in order to stop its trail of terror. While one assumes that many hands make light work, the buffalo is harder to capture than everyone initially anticipates, making it such a prized catch that innocent determination quickly morphs into a fanatical zeal to come out on top. What was once a mere food source turns into a terrible reminder of our latent capacity for violence and hysteria—attributes that have existed since prehistoric times.
Pellissery’s film moves like a cannonball discharged at full might, matching the chaos of the buffalo’s ferocity, while the clockwork-precise editing of the first act (so-called because some of it is literally edited to the syncopation of a clock ticking) comes across retrospectively as the ominous countdown before an explosive is set off. While this ensures there is never a dull moment in the feverish buffalo hunt, the focus on disorder makes other details difficult to parse, including important characters whose relationships are dashed off in hurried dialogue and never built to complex degrees. It is a veritable melee of interchangeable bodies that we watch chase after the animal, and though they do so with increasing ferality, there is no true locus of attention from which to anchor our investment.
Narratives about the innate savagery of mankind have existed for centuries, and Jallikattu continues the tradition in the Malayalam style. What it lacks is enough discipline to keep the viewer emotionally immersed with the same visceral intensity as its formal tumult. Said tumult does lead to some breathtaking sequences (the climactic ending being particularly noteworthy), but when there is very little gravitas to fill out the tale, the tedium sets in far quicker than one would like.
Jallikattu debuted at TIFF in the Contemporary World Cinema programme on September 6, 2019.