Perhaps the most straightforward of stories, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu is an intense experience consisting of a sensory experience like no other. Drawing from a native tradition in India of the same name, Pellissery’s latest film is never wanting for adrenaline. Nothing short of mesmerizing in its opening minutes, Jallikattu strings audiences along with a bull chase that threatens to go horribly violent at any point, all the way through to the dizzying finale. The result is a bold feature that tears into the idea of civilization and what happens when society begins losing a core part of its routine.
Everything in the first five minutes of Jallikattu sets up for something truly tremendous. Set in a remote village in Kerala, India — a village that essentially sustains itself — the movie effectively establishes a rhythm that keeps everything moving. Much is centered around the process of herding and killing a bull to then serve to the villagers for their daily meals. It’s either chicken or bull here, and you can only eat so many chickens before you cut off the supply of eggs, so when a bull escapes, effectively disrupting the daily routine of each and every villager, all of the men in the village split up in groups to try and catch the beast before night hits.
Those first five minutes also establish a very distinct style of editing and sound design that echoes throughout the film’s runtime. Jallikattu is a movie that requires a lot of quick cuts, loud noises, and extremely detailed close-ups to capture a sense of life interrupted. Since most of the film is centered around the villagers’ pursuit of the bull, the movie is always shot as if anything can happen at anytime. A bull may suddenly destroy the shops of the village, or it may rampage through the nearby fields. It’s important to note that the bull is not out to kill any of the villagers — it’s merely escaping — but there is always that threat of violence lingering in the background of the film, creating palpable sense of tension.
Where Jallikattu suffers, however is in its attempts to do more than chase a wild bull. Class politics are brought into the mix briefly as a wealthy man attempts to plan his daughter’s wedding (she does not want to be married), but demands there be some sort of meat at the celebration. Meanwhile, two of the men in the village rival against each other, only ever distracted by the presence of the bull in their own violent arguments. These and other social dynamics are not necessarily uninteresting, but the movie always shines when the film centers around the chase. Everything is of course a byproduct of circumstances, and the situation naturally lets rivalries boil to the surface, but with the bull acting as a catalyst.
Most of all, Jallikattu’s side tangents can all be distilled down to the primal nature of man. That point alone is what the film hangs its hat on until its absolutely gonzo conclusion — one that feels simultaneously like a natural climax and something absolutely out of left-field. It’s not necessarily a movie that can be easily recommended, especially if depictions of animal cruelty is a concern (after all, this is a film about a bull that needs to be both chased and killed), as the filmmakers don’t shy away from showing the gritty details, but everything is kept matter-of-fact in its execution. Truly an experience worth having, there are few films that match the insanity and the constant threat of experiencing something traumatic like Jallikattu offers at every turn.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15