Psycho movie review: Some interesting subtext in a film that reeks of artificiality
A manufactured quality permeates the whole of Mysskin's Psycho. Film characters are puppets of the filmmaker, yes, but here, they really do seem like puppets without life or agency
Such is Alfred Hitchcock’s influence on cinema that it’s hard to process words like psycho and vertigo without images from his films flashing in your head. Mysskin’s Psycho begins with a dedication to the master filmmaker, with some of the film’s ideas bearing quite a few similarities to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The handsome psychopath, the disapproving, emasculating matriarch, the man-woman team to take down the murderer… There’s even maternal sympathy getting accorded to the psychopath. Its end though reminded me of a film, about a sociopath, that’s our own: Selvaraghavan’s Kadhal Kondein. Unlike in Hitchcock’s Psycho though, there’s no mystery concerning the killer’s identity here. The first scene of this film, before the title, shows him decapitating his victim. Given the lack of suspense over the killer’s identity, this horror film’s main draw then is to entertain you through thrills resulting from his pursuit. Can the visually challenged hero, Gautham (Udhayanidhi Stalin), do what the police aren’t able to? Can the damsel in distress, Dahini (Aditi Rao Hydari)—who doesn’t show the slightest effort to save herself—be saved by her ‘daredevil’ suitor?
It was quite a relief to see, for once, a horror film that isn’t frightened of itself. Too many of our films about murderers seem too squeamish about gore and violence, but Psycho has the stomach for it, and an appropriate censor certificate to boot. Heads are severed, headless bodies are displayed, throats are slit… And yet, strangely, none of this creates any visceral reaction. The stunning lack of investment you feel with Psycho’s world and its characters are, however, not for want of interesting ideas. They are all there. It’s interesting that the two people in pursuit of the killer are both differently abled, and how together, they form a conventional physical ‘whole’ for the purposes of this story. The man lacks eyesight, but as it turns out, that’s all the woman is able to offer, in matters of physical ability, as they both look to achieve their respective fulfillment. It’s interesting that the film attempts to show that the really broken person is one who doesn’t look so. The killer is handsome, and as a sex worker qualifies this in the film, “Chocolate madhri mozhu ozhu nu cinema star madhiri irukaan.” All of this is interesting, but this is all the subtext. The actual events are barely emotionally affecting, and don’t thrill as they should.
The romance at the heart of this film, with which the story begins, is strangely uninspired. The visually challenged man, with a helpful friend (Singampuli), is shown to stalk Dahini, who once complains, “Pinnadi vandhu thollai panraan.” Again, it may be interesting in theory to show that the ‘sleuthing’ ability of a stalker gets used to save a girl here, but it’s not in great taste to have the girl succumb to shady pursuit. This romance eventually achieves fruition in the film through Gautham putting a ring on Dahini’s finger. The problems begin right at the beginning when an entire wedding party, including the bride and groom, let this man profess his love without interruptions. It’s the girl who’s restrained, and by her father no less, who shows more sympathy for the visually challenged stalker than he does for his victimised daughter. Ilaiyaraaja’s beautiful ‘Unna Nenachu’ gets picturised as Gautham’s friend forces him to take the guitar and begin singing. In his words, “Engayum poga mudiyadhu; paadu daa.” Is that perhaps Mysskin communicating how he’s held hostage to the song routine in cinema?
All the rescue resposibility thrust on Gautham seems forced. It’s bizarre that Dahini reposes such faith on a stranger’s ability and intent to save her. It’s bizarre that a psychiatrist motivates Gautham to hunt down this menacing murderer, despite the latter pointing out that he is hampered by loss of vision. “Arivaala thedu, manasaala thedu,” she urges. It’s impossible not to ask why she cares as much. It’s bizarre again that a worldweary policeman, about to be murdered, assures Dahini that Gautham will rescue her. Gautham’s elderly caretaker-friend is the only one who seems to try and talk him out of this seemingly mad pursuit, and for his efforts, gets a disproportionately harsh rebuke: “Engayavadhu seththuponga.” It’s a line forced in for poetic value. But you never truly understand what the loss means to Gautham, never mind that cursory crying scene. Come to think of it, you barely see Dahini’s father again in the film too.
Many of Psycho’s characters behave in inexplicable ways that seem disconnected from reality. There’s the ‘horny hacker’ trope in this film. As he’s about to die, he plants a kiss on Madonna’s poster. Perhaps it seemed funny on paper? Or how about the scene in which Kamala (an entertainingly abusive Nithya Menen) and Gautham meet the dad of a deceased girl who won’t cooperate with their investigation? The former makes up some strange story about a psychic called Aasana Kundi, and presto, the dad’s convinced. Perhaps it was meant to show how people are persuaded more by superstition than reason? Perhaps. However, this exchange reeks of artificiality.
This manufactured quality permeates the whole of Psycho. Film characters are puppets of the filmmaker, yes, but here, they really do seem like puppets without life or agency. Be it when Kamala asks for a chewing gum or when a policeman (Ram) hums AM Raja songs—once to the father of a victim—or when the visually challenged Gautham is shown to be racing through the roads with a car, guided by frenetic instructions from Kamala, the events of this film never convince you of their reality. As Dahini, about to be murdered, looks on with cold composure and assures that Gautham will come and get her, it seemed to me, for a fleeting second, like she might be more mentally disturbed than the killer himself.
The only person whose behaviour I bought to a reasonable extent in this film is Kamala. Her dialogues are among the few times in this film when a character talks like a real person would. I liked the scene in which she tears into Gautham for needlessly philosophising in everyday speech. It’s how I felt many times hearing this film’s characters speak and behave. I also liked the actor (Raj) who plays the killer in this film, and found the intent to humanise his character to be laudable, especially during these times when it seems to be a widely held belief that people are born good/bad. The killer is named Anguli in this film, a reference to the Angulimala story in Buddhism, which stresses on the importance of rehabilitation and a person’s ability to reform. The word, Anguli, means a ‘finger’, and there’s something about severed fingers in this film as well. There are other Buddist references. There's the name of the hero. There's a small sculpture of Buddha somwhere in the film.
This Buddhist idea of reformation finds resonance in how the victim, Dahini, is shown to shed tears for the killer’s plight, and the intent is all fine and dandy. The only problem is and it’s a big one, I simply didn’t buy it. There’s very little to suggest that Dahini is so selfless as to put aside her own plight, ignore the strangeness of her setting, shake off her dread, and empathise as evidently about her psycho-kidnapper. It just happens, and I just didn’t buy it. The implacable faith of Dahini, the selfless love of Gautham… Despite Psycho being a two-and-a-half-hour film, these important aspects find very little justification. They just are. If it’s just the writer saying, “Because I said so”, there’s no reason why we cannot shake our heads and say, “Sorry, I don’t buy it.”