Ever since Kubrick tracked Jack and his family's slow car ride to the Overlook Hotel in the opening of The Shining, every movie about characters going on a trip where they end up trapped in some hill station feels compelled to pay homage to the master. The opening of Chuzhal, the 2021 Malayalam film, is one of the most mesmerising homages to The Shining I've seen in recent years. Not only is it visually interesting and conveys the distance the protagonists have to travel, but it also foreshadows the doppelgänger shenanigans to follow.
Five friends, four of them men, are on their way to a wedding. The road is dangerous, with hard rock on one side, sheer cliff on the other. A jeep almost runs them off the side, and suddenly adrenaline and testosterone mix in dangerous combinations. The woman, Neenu (Nilja), is an ineffectual voice of reason as the men work themselves into a frenzy and chase after the jeep. Even as they vent their frustrations about the dangerous driving of the jeep, they themselves almost run another vehicle off the road. The theme of the movie — of characters entering an inescapable whirlpool of decisions and consequences — is the driving force of the plot in these early sequences and we can already feel the characters descending the spiral to a point of no return. By the time the men finish their impotent argument and get back to the wedding, they've already sealed their fate.
It's late at night as they make their way back from the wedding. There are miles more to go, and the road twists and turns as it snakes around cold misty hills. It's hard to keep track of time, and the impatience of being crammed together in a small car is getting to them.
Haven't we been this way, wonders one of the characters.
They decide to stay somewhere for the night, and what do you know, there's a villa just when they need one. The caretaker (Jaffer Idukki) is all too welcoming.
From here, the movie starts to unravel. Only part of the problem is the performances of the lead characters. This is clearly the first or one of the first projects of most of the people involved, and for that it is commendable. But the narrative asks for more than most of these actors can deliver. As soon as they are in the villa, strange things begin to happen. For the sake of spoilers, I won't reveal what happens, but it reminded me of the 2009 film Triangle, but in a good way. It never felt like a rip-off, it felt like the filmmakers were promising a narrative just as interesting as that film. Alas, that was not to be.
The ideas presented in the film, while true to the overall themes of the film, are undercooked and half-pursued. It raises more questions than it answers, and it leaves a lot of unasked questions that leave you wondering if the script couldn't have used a couple of more passes.
Just like the script, the cinematography shines in some places, like the opening sequence, the long winding car rides, the sequence where Neenu escapes, and anytime the camera is on Jaffer Idukki, but it doesn't quite use the confined location of the Villa for maximum paranoia.
While the performances feel uneven for the most part, the one character that the movie absolutely needs to nail, it delivers in spades. Jaffer Idukki is the clothesline on which this movie hangs. And yes, some of the dialogue in the movie, especially where it counts the most, is just as forced as that metaphor I just used.
Chuzhal is one of those low-budget, atmospheric movies that is destined to be re-discovered after the people involved in the making of it go on to do better and greater things. It is the very definition of a stepping stone.