'Phoenix' film review: Intriguing concept let down by bland narration
Phoenix is a film with an intriguing premise, no doubt about that, but it’s also the film that stops being interesting once its central mystery is solved.
As far as I can remember, Phoenix is the first horror movie I’ve seen where a bird’s chirping sound, usually associated with pleasant imagery, is given a chilling dimension. Like the title, birds are a significant presence in the film written by Midhun Manuel Thomas and directed by Vishnu Bharathan. This presence also comes in the form of crows circling doom-laden skies. And for a story set on a land that still bears the imprints of a terrible plague, the absence of a fluttering sound in the air would make this film feel incomplete. (An oft-repeated line in horror movies, “Sir, there is something wrong with that place,” shows up in Phoenix too.)
While on sounds and images, Phoenix is quite effective at relaying the mood of a given situation. Like a young boy’s nightmarish vision that recalls the atmosphere of that iconic scene from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Or a little finger trick that another kid pulls (no pun intended). The contributions of cinematographer Alby, art director Shajie Naduvil, editor Nithish KTR, composer Sam CS, and the sound department help conjure a dread-inducing atmosphere to a certain extent, except in places with a forceful inclusion of a jump scare.
Is Phoenix extremely terrifying? No. There is a reason for it not being so, but I don’t want to reveal the film’s true intentions. Interestingly, the makers have managed to mask some of the film’s surprises by adding bits of misleading footage in the trailer that didn’t make it to the final cut. (Or did they stretch the runtime more than necessary?)
However, the same problems plaguing most Malayalam thrillers today impair Phoenix, too. It’s tiring to see stock characters like that priest, that tea stall/vegetable shop owner, that affluent and nefarious achaayan father, and last but not least, that best friend with whom you can share everything. The film’s biggest problem is that every character seems unified by the same manner of speaking. Of course, all the actors look and sound different, but the implication is that they all seem unified by a single ‘voice’—of the man who wrote the script.
Phoenix is a film with an intriguing premise—no doubt about that—but it’s also the film that stops being interesting once its central mystery is solved. When we look at the list of some of the world’s most acclaimed horror thrillers, they all possess qualities that make them worthy of multiple revisits. Take Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. You learn something new on each revisit. Why are Indian filmmakers—except for a very few—not daring for these kinds of experiments? I mean, didn’t we have a horror masterclass like Bhoothakalam recently?
Phoenix is not a film I would ever consider revisiting, and the primary reason is its unexceptional narrative style. But then, this is true of most Malayalam films made today, especially in the thriller genre, because they all carry only a surface-level appeal. Phoenix suffers from the same problem that Midhun Manuel Thomas’ Garudan did. That empty, dissatisfied feeling once the end credits begin rolling. At least Garudan had convincing performances going for it, which helped salvage it to an extent; Phoenix, on the other hand, suffers from lackluster performances. In the latter, the plot revelations get more prominence.
One set of characters merely exists to introduce the story of another. I have to be as vague as possible here because with films of this nature, even letting out a small plot detail runs the risk of giving away the entire plot. Giving the flashback portions a patina of melodrama characteristic of yesteryear Malayalam tragedies negates the smooth rhythm established pre-interval. The love story presented before us fails to stir emotions; it becomes an endurance test. The lack of disconnect we feel towards the characters works to the film’s detriment. Besides, why recreate outdated ideas that wouldn’t gel well with today’s sensibilities?
It’s nice to see Chandhunadh, an actor often relegated to stiff and charismatic characters, playing a softie for a change. It’s refreshing to see him exude an air of vulnerability. But, in everyone else’s case, the personalities are informed by secondary characters when that is supposed to be the actors’ job. Moreover, some moments in Phoenix would’ve been far more effective without music. For instance, the emotional impact of a rainy scene involving a grave and a bell gets sorely diluted by having it accompanied by a sad song. It also doesn’t help that Anoop Menon is the priest with a traumatic past, recently returned from—wait for it—Rome, narrating the tragic events. But the artificiality we feel in dialogue delivery is true of most actors in the film, except for Aju Varghese, the only actor who sounds like a real person and responds convincingly to everything happening around him. I wish that were the case with others, too.
Director: Vishnu Bharathan
Cast: Aju Varghese, Nilja K Baby, Chandhunadh, Anoop Menon