Captain Miller Movie Review: Blocks of brilliance in a film that is emotionally unfulfilling

Captain Miller Movie Review: Blocks of brilliance in a film that is emotionally unfulfilling

Rating:(3 / 5)

Arun Matheswaran has a gift for being able to create individual blocks of cinematic brilliance. If the task is to present a rousing introduction scene for Miller (Dhanush) as he shoots down some oppressive white men, Arun ensures that you are delivered trippy visuals that when combined with GV Prakash’s thumping score, result in such a rush. Cops charge at villagers; Miller, face paint and all, dances around the fire; Britishers get gunned down; the sound of gunshots merges with the music. And when all of these shots combine, what seems like a straightforward intro scene in writing, turns into something much more. And for a while, this seemed enough for me. During this period, Arun takes a ‘hero transformation’ scene (the death of Eesan and the birth of the devilish Captain Miller)—and makes it profound. It’s probably my most favourite portion of the film, as Eesan (named after the god of destruction) comes to terms with death—both murder and suicide—and undergoes a trial by fire, literally. That shot as fire rages both inside Eesan and outside of him, as he kicks an evil man into sky-high flames… That alone is worth the price of the ticket.

Director: Arun Matheswaran

Cast: Dhanush, Shivarajkumar, Priyanka Mohan

And Dhanush is faultless, playing this complicated man who thinks of himself as the devil but is likened to a god by his people. “Kettavana kolla nallavan dhaan venuma? Yen, kettavan kettavana kolla maataana?” he asks. There’s a fair bit of commentary about the morality of Miller. Is he good? Is he bad? Is he beyond such judgment? Does he even care? Interestingly, the film begins by noting how stories turn real accounts of bravery into magical actions, and as an extension, turn real people into gods. Captain Miller, then, is the story of how an average oppressed citizen, a man who prioritises self-respect above all, becomes a frightening deity. Any deity worth his salt ought to stand for underdogs and victims of systematic abuse, and Captain Miller does that. He presents himself in times of need and dispenses violent justice… and even answers prayers and grants wishes. It’s why even Velmathi (Priyanka Mohan), who is supposed to be furious with him, can’t help but ask him for a wish—which he promptly grants. I also enjoyed how the film toys with the Velmathi-Eesan angle, and how it simply won’t succumb to giving us a conventional relationship. Eesan thinks he has rescued Velmathi, like so many of our heroes, and almost half-expects a romance to blossom. But Arun Matheswaran introduces her lover to us—and him, at this point. Even while I felt bad for Eesan, I couldn’t help but laugh in enjoyment.

Also, most films set in the pre-independence era tend to make the narrative solely about patriotism and wanting alien oppressors out, but Captain Miller has more surprises. Through its protagonist, Eesan, it questions how our society treated tribals and Dalits from before the British invasion—and asks whether life would get better if control were wrested from the Britishers and handed over to kings and princes instead. Eesan summarises it all with one powerful line that equates freedom with self-respect. And this is why I was so thrilled, so enthusiastic about how this film was set up during these early portions. I was also grateful that the white people in the film behaved and spoke in authentic ways. It’s also encouraging how even amid all the violence in this action film, Arun finds a place for women—and this is more than you can say about most action films in which a gang of good men unite at the end to amp up heroism.

And yet, for all these positives, somewhere along the way, the focus on the individual and the intimate (Arun Matheswaran is great when it remains this way) gradually dissipates as the film tries to tackle the collective. For all the big tragedies unfolding, including systematic oppression and genocide, the emotions—the eventual catharsis—needed to register better. I found myself consuming the action set-pieces (like the ‘bike-chase truck robbery’) from a distance. Director Arun still ensures there are plenty of visual joys, like beholding a glorious series of explosions from what seem like harmless bodies on a spike. At a time when we see a lot of generic mind-numbing violence, it takes a special something to be able to create a feeling of awe. And yet, for me, this was a detached feeling of visual wonder—and I sought more connection with the characters, a more intimate understanding of their humanity.

For one, the evil men needed to be defined better. The king, the prince, the white oppressors… They all possess hearts of black and their actions aren’t exactly memorable either, resulting in dull, caricaturish adversaries who wait to die unmemorable deaths. When a man gets half his face burnt (two-face?) and reveals it towards the end, the imagery is interesting, but does it necessarily add much to the ensuing scenes—or our own understanding of him?

In each of his films, Arun Matheswaran has opted to divide his story into chapters (I love the prologue and epilogue ideas). In previous stories that were more contained and were about fewer people, this format created unique perspectives from which to observe these events. Here, given the scale of the events, given the number of characters involved, this idea serves only to disassociate. The urgency of the events means that there aren’t too many of those enjoyable moments of rumination we got in Arun’s previous films—you know, where he would slow everything down, so you could breathe in the world of the film and its characters.

But it’s a film packed with ideas, both in writing and filmmaking—especially in the latter. I have always enjoyed how Arun plays with snapshots from across time periods. Consider how he uses Sengannen (Shivarajkumar), for instance. Somewhere in the beginning, we see him have a thoughtful exchange with Eesan. He disappears for a long time afterwards. And without warning, the film steps back in time to capture a song-and-dance with him and presents another moment with Eesan and his mother that humanises him a bit more. And once again, he disappears until his eventual return. It’s fascinating to observe how Arun Matheswaran has the film stepping forwards and backwards and how through these seemingly isolated events and conversations, he slowly but steadily, constructs his story. It’s really only in cinema that you could do this—and so, yes, while Captain Miller doesn’t resonate as emotionally as his previous films did, his admirable signature and conviction are still all over this film.

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