12th Man Movie Review: Passable whodunit held together by a few stimulating ideas
12th Man has its share of shortcomings, but it's a relief to see Mohanlal playing a level-headed character again
A few hours before I started watching 12th Man, a friend lamented about her close friend not telling her about a pivotal life decision. Her disappointment came from the fact that this friend used to share with her every little problem. So why wasn't she told about this particular thing? In Jeethu Joseph's new film, the Malayalam master of suspense once again explores the idea of keeping and revealing secrets, this time between friends.
Who is a friend? Is it someone who keeps us company in our dark times? Is it someone to whom we tell our most intimate secrets? When we don't, is it because we don't consider them our friends (and vice versa)? When we share something of ours, do we expect them to share theirs too? And what about couples (married or otherwise)? Is it necessary to tell each other everything? Would it be wiser to keep some secrets to ourselves? Does doing the latter contribute to the sustenance of a romantic relationship?
Director: Jeethu Joseph
Cast: Mohanlal, Sshivada, Leona Lishoy, Saiju Kurup, Unni Mukundan, Chandunadh
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Now, if both parties have made a commitment to being 100 per cent transparent, there's no issue. But what if these friends (or lovers) were always under the impression that they were always transparent? Would the sudden revelation of a shocking bit of information about one of them — triggered by the arrival of a stranger — throw their bond off balance?
These questions were put forth and explored brilliantly in the Italian film, Perfect Strangers (and its numerous remakes), from which 12th Man borrows its core idea. While the original was a relatively more lighthearted affair, a relationship drama, to be precise, Jeethu combines that concept with a Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot-style investigative procedural. Unlike Perfect Strangers, 12th Man leans slightly towards the dark side.
When Mohanlal's Chandraprakash crashes the party of a group of eleven friends, the initial impression formed is that of a drunk rabble-rouser who proves troublesome for the other guests. He bores us — in a good way — with his over-the-top act. After he leaves, the friends, at the provocation of one character, start playing a game, borrowed from Perfect Strangers, of course, which requires everyone to make their calls, texts, and voice messages public. Little by little, it is known that they all are concealing something that could lead to their whole world crashing down. Something that violently rips apart their false veneer of transparency.
Since the promos of 12th Man didn't reveal the profession of Mohanlal's character, I've elected to withhold it here, too. Since I went in without knowing anything about the plot, I liked how each plot development unravelled. Some neatly done, seamless transitions between past and present got me thinking about how the team executed them. For example, a character sitting on a chair in the present is framed in the same angle when he 'teleports' to a hotel bed in the past. Another one would have an actor moving towards the right side of the frame to merge into a frame in the present. In one scene, we see Mohanlal in the present 'observing' a conversation between two people in the past. I refuse to dismiss this as a fancy gimmick because it made the storytelling intriguing. 12th Man is, after all, a single-setting mystery with a 3-hr duration.
Credit to Jeethu Joseph and editor VS Vinayak for keeping things moving briskly. Though composer Anil Johnson's James Bond-inspired score is a welcome addition, it tends to have a distracting effect at times, especially when a principal character is in the middle of feeding us a crucial piece of information. The problem with having a familiar-sounding score accompanying a serious conversation is that we are distracted by the familiarity of the music.
Other distractions in 12th Man come in the form of some soap opera-style performances that border, occasionally, on unintentional hilarity. Of all the actors, I can only think of Mohanlal, Sshivada, Leona Lishoy and Chandunadh sounding like regular folks even when driven by strong emotions.
There are points where 12th Man gets a tad confusing. We also don't care for any of the characters. But then, it's an affliction of even some of the most revered mystery classics authored by the most distinguished of writers such as Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett. We saw this problem even in their big-screen adaptations. But regardless, many critics regard the adaptations of Chandler's The Big Sleep (1946) or Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1941) as first-class mysteries. But these stories, in my book, didn't have characters I cared about even though I consider them well-made whodunits. It's sometimes necessary to keep these characters at a distance because it's what they don't tell us that appeals to the voyeur in all of us.
Sometimes we look for an emotional response to the victim, like in the case of KG George's Yavanika or the 1974 film adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Even Jeethu's Drishyam films demanded a high degree of emotional commitment. Of course, casting also matters in such examples. When the victim/killer is someone who either makes us angry or sad, the reader or viewer becomes an active participant in the story. It starts tugging at their conscience. In other cases, such as 12th Man, it's fun to see the private detective deciphering multiple clues until he reveals the primary suspect. But how many of us remember how we got there? Yes, we find delight in knowing the mastermind's identity, but when we try to analyse how the sleuth reached some conclusions, we may not always be successful. I prefer the ones that rely on emotional provocation, and this is why I place 12th Man a couple of notches below something like Drishyam 2.
Yes, 12th Man has its share of shortcomings; however, it's a relief to see Mohanlal playing a level-headed character again... after that initial bit of theatricality to mislead the other characters, that is. Yes, we have seen him in better versions of this character before, but his presence largely contributes to making a film of such a lengthy duration bearable. But knowing Jeethu to be one for setting remarkably high standards in the mystery genre with a Drishyam 2 or Memories, it becomes a bit difficult to digest anything lesser, no?