Psycho (2020)

There are certain things you expect from a Mysskin film, an obsession with feet, unusual camera angles and a cast of odd characters, and for the most part Psycho delivers, although parts of the story follow a familiar and more traditional route. Perhaps most shockingly the love story here follows the tired old trope of stalking = true love, but when Mysskin moves outside the basics into the realm of child abuse, Stockholm syndrome and psychosis, the film starts to take some intriguing turns where anything seems possible. Although not his best film, Psycho is bloody, challenging and intriguing on many levels, and seems set to become another deserved success for Mysskin.

The title comes from the film’s protagonist, a psychopathic killer who brutally murders women before leaving their bodies prominently displayed to public view. The film starts with one such murder which is shown in gory detail as we watch the killer, Angulimala (Rajkumar Pitchumani), in action. The body, minus head, is dumped in a public location and the reaction shots are classic Mysskin, first a low shot of victim’s family as they approach and then switching to aerial shots to capture the distress and heartbreak. The murders have apparently been going on for a few years and the police are baffled without any obvious suspects or useful leads. The investigation is led by Muthu (Ram) who has a tendency to sing old Tamil songs at odd moments, but sadly we never find out why and his back story is never explored. The entire police operation is kept superficial and peripheral to the main story and although there are occasional mentions of forensic tests and interviews, these are all simply a background beat to the murders. 

The focus of the film is RJ Dahini (Aditi Rao Hydari) who is the killer’s next victim. Possibly because she talked to a psychologist about psychopaths on her radio show, or maybe just because she fits the killer’s victim profile, being young and female. But Dahini is also being stalked by a blind musician, Gautham (Udhayanidhi Stalin) who turns up with his carer Rajanayakam (Singampuli) everywhere that Dahini goes. She is understandably frustrated and annoyed by Gautham’s inability to take no for an answer, but Mysskin follows this sadly over-used and out-dated trope right to the end, and gradually Dahini starts to rethink her opinion of Gautham. Just in time for her to be kidnapped by Angulimala. 

Dahini is sure that she will be rescued by Gautham and I’m not totally sure whether this conviction is because she has actually fallen in love with him, or just because his stalker tendencies mean he can find her anywhere. Rather improbably, Angulimala gives Gautham 7 days to find and rescue her, although it the break in routine doesn’t stop his need to kill.  Meanwhile Gautham recruits paraplegic ex-cop Kamala Das (Nithya Menen) to help him with the search. Kamala was paralysed after falling down some stairs during the search for the killer, and has her own darkness to overcome to be able to help Gautham through his. With Guatham’s enhanced senses and Kamala’s cop insights they soon get close to the killer, while Dahini’s captivity allows her to understand what drives Angulimala to kill over and over again.

Mysskin has based his film on the Buddhist story of Aṅgulimāla, and even names his psychopathic killer after him. However, this Angulimala has a rather more sordid backstory that ends up allowing Dahini to empathise with her captor. While bringing in the element of institutionalised child abuse and adding the concept of religious sin raises some interesting questions, Mysskin perhaps takes it a little too far here when he suggests that Angulimala is purely a victim of his circumstance and deserving of our sympathy. Perhaps he did have a rough upbringing, but he’s a stone-cold killer and there is more to the making of a murderer than purely nurture alone. On the other hand, Dahini’s apparent Stockholm syndrome does make sense and her reactions to Angulimala’s revelations are neatly written into the story. Aditi Rao Hydari is perfectly cast here and she does an excellent job as a victim and unwilling observer to Angulimala’s executions. She appears fragile and yielding, but is able to demonstrate the inner core of strength that allows her character to survive her ordeal. It’s a great performance and Aditi is compelling in the role. For the most part her reactions are that I would expect from any normal person in the same situation, and her character is well written to capture the different range of emotions. My favourite moment is when, after gaining a little more freedom of movement, she finds a bathroom and immediately makes use of the facilities – it seemed such a perfectly natural and human thing to do.

Udhayanidhi Stalin is fine as Gautham, but his determined devotion to Dahini isn’t convincing, partly due to the way the romance develops but mainly because there is little back story for the character. There is little opportunity for him to develop any real interaction with Dahini before she is taken by Angulimala, and her conviction that Gautham will come for her mainly seems to be driven by his stalker tendencies rather than the true love he insists he feels for her. Udhayanidhi is better in the scenes where he is persuading Kamala to help, or pleading with Muthu to let him be involved in the police investigation, where we can see the reasoning behind his actions even if the motivation is less believable. Probably the most convincing character of the investigating team is Kamala and Nithya Menen is excellent here, ensuring that she gets the mix of bitterness and self-interest mixed with compassion just right. I love her snarky responses and ability to add a lighter touch to what is otherwise a rather heavily emotional thriller. No matter the situation, she can be counted on for a sarcastic quip or bitter diatribe about her situation. I felt that in the midst of all the bizarre happenings and total craziness of Guatham’s investigation, Kamala acted quite rationally for her character and this helped ground the film whenever Mysskin was in danger of being carried away by theatricality.

Another major plus in the film is the wonderful music from Ilaiyaraaja. The melodies are beautiful and haunting, while the background score is atmospheric and fits the film perfectly. Kudos to Sharan Rajan for translating the songs as songs (instead of literal word for word translations) and making the lyrics scan beautifully. Well done too, to the producers for making the subs yellow and for crediting both the subtitler and Subemy, something which unfortunately very few seem to do.

Tanvir Mir does a fantastic job with the cinematography, heightening tension with clever use of lighting in the scenes with Angulimala and contrasting this with the bright sunlit spaces where the bodies are found. I love a sequence where Gautham is driving (yes, really) and the car is a ribbon of light moving across the otherwise black screen. Even an overly theatrical scene where Dahini finds out more about Angulimala’s past is held together by the immaculate staging and imaginative use of light and shadow. There is so much attention to detail here in the set design and every single piece seems to be symbolic in some way. Gautham sits at home underneath a wall sculpture of a spreading tree, the religious imagery is continued by having a hacker listing to Madonna’s Frozen and the turning blades of windmills after watching the killer expertly wield his own knives.

I have to say that Psycho isn’t my favourite film from Mysskin. There are a number of unresolved issues such as how the killer chooses his victims and why he displays them in the manner he does. Also, there are a number of leaps of faith required to believe that Gautham really would be able to track Dahini in the few days he has available, and at the core, I don’t feel that the attempt to pass Angulimala as a damaged child really works. But if you are prepared to put these small issues aside and just enjoy the sheer spectacle, the characterisations and the performances as well as the wonderful music, then Psycho is definitely one for fans of the thriller/slasher genre. For the rest, be warned that it is significantly gory, right from the very first scene which may not be to everyone’s tastes. For the audience in Melbourne, who gave the film a resounding round of applause at the end, it most definitely was.

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