A few months before the release of Rorschach, I had heard little whispers of its plot from a couple of industry insiders. I found the concept interesting, and I was curious not only to see how director Nisam Basheer -- who made his debut with the polarising Kettyolaanu Ente Malakha -- would pull it off but also how Kerala audiences would react to it. Now, I'm not someone who looks at the initial reactions on social media before writing a review -- because I don't want anyone else's opinions colouring my own -- so I'm not aware of others' Rorschach experience. I'm only sure of mine: fulfilling, not only because it tickled the film buff in me that loves an unconventional genre fusion but also because the makers have pulled it off without making it seem too inaccessible. Oh, and I promise not to spill any spoilers.
What is Rorschach? Well, many things. Off the top of my head -- part revenge thriller, part gothic ghost story, part dysfunctional family drama, part dark comedy, and part crime noir... I might find more on a revisit. Anyway, it's incredible how all of these elements come well together in this film; but look beneath the veneer of genre-blending, and we see three different families with ideological and temperamental differences and an astonishing capacity for evil. By the time we get to the finale, most of these characters evolve into people they were not at the story's beginning.
In the opening scene, when Mammootty's Luke Antony walks into a police station and reports being in an accident and his wife missing, we and every character who comes into contact with him believe him. But we'll soon learn there is a much larger story behind it. Luke isn't hasty to tell it, and neither is the film. It wants to go at the same pace as him. It throws at us disparate images that at first glance seem disjointed, but if you're patient and attentive enough -- don't look at the phone and complain later -- everything will begin to make sense. You'll see the significance of some juxtaposition choices or why some scenes were so brief and sparse with the revelation of information.
I mentioned earlier about Rorschach being a portrait of families. The film gives us more information about them than it does about Luke, and I don't mean this in a negative way. The title also makes sense once the end credits roll. Luke was on a mission, but his arrival also brought out the distasteful facets in some individuals. In that sense, its behaviour is similar to that of a Western. You know, the story of that lone mysterious stranger arriving at a small town to shake things up?
In this film, we learn about a family with a devilish streak running through them for generations. They carry it around like a curse. At one point, a mother declares that her children are her carbon copies and they are capable of everything she is. As this mother, Bindu Panicker gives us a profoundly unsettling performance that eerily recalls Jacki Weaver from the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom. And there is Jagadish as a quietly functioning police constable whose true intentions, once evident, gives his character a whole new dimension. It takes a while for him to say something, but when he does, he makes you more curious. It's the most impressive I've seen the actor in a long time.
The film's storytelling, too, reflects the idiosyncratic nature of its protagonist. Rorschach reveals information about Luke in an incremental fashion. Sometimes the film catches us off guard by simultaneously running past and present events from his life. There are films where this approach -- where no title card informs us which event is past or present -- failed miserably, but in Rorschach, it works perfectly. It's a classic case of relying more on visual storytelling than exposition. That said, the film has its share of moments where the characters say things that guide us, but at the same time, the script is careful not to say it all at once and ruin the fun. Just as he does with every character he meets, Luke taunts us until it's time for him to tell us what happened in his life and his plans.
The only information we know about Luke initially is that something tragic has befallen him. And then we ask: Who is he? How can he fight so well? What's his interest in two particular families? Why does he want to live in a haunted house? Why is he using someone's skull as an ashtray? We get the answers, all in good time, but it also doesn't forget to keep some things open-ended. That's where the fun is, right?
Speaking of fun, for a film about unlikeable characters and tragic events, Rorschach is not overwhelmingly depressing -- at least, not for me. It seems to relish its dark energy and revel in its gothic environment, just like its leading man. And Mammootty plays Luke with a measure of mischief, creepiness, and daring that you begin to remember some moments from Vidheyan, Thaniyavarthanam, Bhoothakkandi, or Munnariyippu.
Cinematographer Nimish Ravi, who has already proved himself adept at working comfortably with dark subjects (Luca, Kurup), once again demonstrates his supreme abilities in Rorschach with a work that's remarkably not repetitive. He bathes characters in enough shadows and amber to make them seem like they are Satan's children. Blacks and greys dominate the colour palette, starting with Luke's luxury car. His residence resembles more of a grim mausoleum than a home -- like a sort of 'limbo' in which 'the man in black' can pronounce his judgement.
I also found the choice of using English songs in the soundtrack -- by Midhun Mukundan, who recently worked on the brilliant Kannada gangster drama Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana -- refreshing. The makers' attempt at ignoring the usual tendency of having music "relatable" for Malayali/Indian audiences is admirable. Perhaps this choice suggests a character trait of Luke. What if these are his favourite songs? After all, we are in his world, aren't we?
Director: Nisam Basheer
Casting: Mammootty, Grace Antony, Bindu Panicker, Jagadish, Sharafudheen
Rating: 4/5 stars
(This story originally appeared on Cinema Express)