John Luther Movie Review: A Well-Made Atmospheric Thriller That Works Best As An Origins Story

The lead character’s inability to hear adds elements to a thriller we rarely get to see. This makes John more real and vulnerable and it also makes these cases more dangerous than they would otherwise have been

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Cast: Jayasurya, Siddique, Athmeeya Rajan

Director: Abhijith Joseph

There’s no doubting director Abhijith Joseph’s ability to immerse us deep within the murky world he has constructed for his cop thriller. Set mostly in the hills in and around Munnar, he jolts us into attention a minute in, forcing us to reconsider the impression of a picturesque paradise the film opens with. A bunch of youngsters, all on their phones, are on a bus trip to their respective destinations when a loud thud brings the vehicle to a halt. It’s not a flat tyre, nor is it roadkill. A corpse has fallen right on top of the bus, leaving everyone with a hundred questions. Who is this dead man? Did he die on impact or was he already dead? Is it an accident or a murder?

It’s a solid mix of both mood and good writing to get you hooked on to what’s essentially a portrait of an obsessive police officer and a case even he finds challenging. The film is a little over two hours long but there’s a lot the screenplay addresses to make it broader than your average, everyday whodunit. For one, the main case is one of many he’s investigating. Like any officer out in the real world, he’s dealing with a handful, and running parallelly is the case of two on-the-run political henchmen. John Luther (Jayasurya) is nursing a deep wound when we first see him and this intro gives us the feeling that we’re starting somewhere in the middle, instead of “Chapter 1”. The film doesn’t tell us what happened to him. It doesn’t have to, because knowing John Luther is often more important than knowing the case he’s investigating. It frees up the film to avoid genre cliches and it doesn’t need a sample investigation to show us how brilliant John Luther is.

Instead, the film spends a large chunk of its time etching the outlines of a fascinating character. He may be a senior officer but he hails from the kind of privilege where it’s unusual to be working in a government job, let alone a dangerous one far away from home. He’s a bit of a workaholic too, the kind who has no time to attend his sister’s pre-engagement party, even though he wanted to. It’s like the family is slowly coming to terms with his continued absence and his sister even maintains a photo journal of John with his many injuries. His obsessive nature, along with his privilege gives his character an added edge. For him, the job is more than money or power. It’s as though “Duty First” doesn’t feel like a cliche when we’re seeing it through John.

These are themes the film wants you to hold on to because the soul of John Luther is that of an origins story. Even when the central case takes precedence, it’s never at the cost of our understanding of the lead. In fact, it’s the other case he’s working on that contributes to one of the highlights of the film—the attack that damages his hearing. His lack of hearing adds elements to the thriller we rarely get to see. This makes John more real and vulnerable and it also makes these cases more dangerous than they would otherwise have been.

So when one of the cases develops into a hunt for a serial killer, the stakes are sky-high and there’s a lot to lose. It’s a credit to the writing that the film never deviates from its focus on John’s state of mind. As one would expect, he isn’t reduced to his disability. His hardness of hearing is best kept as an important detail that makes him all the more fascinating. It isn’t treated like a major weakness affecting the case, nor does it get the prominence of a superpower with all his other senses doing the heavy lifting like in Daredevil.

This leap, one suspects, is bound to divide how people perceive the film. Although it makes his character distinct, it doesn’t lead to situations where this weakness is used against him and we also don’t get a thrilling clash where an opponent uses this information. It’s an idea that may leave you feeling dissatisfied, but chances are, it was intentional.

Instead, what I found a tad underwhelming was the idea of this particular case being introduced as John Luther’s last. The director chooses to use this as a plot point to give the following case an almost mythical quality. It’s eventually the same duty that hurt him that ends up becoming his cure and his motivation to get back to life. And so, when he returns post-injury for one last case, you expect the film to do full justice to this idea and John’s emotional journey during his last few days of doing what he loves.

This mild disappointment also spreads to the serial killer case as well. A decoy doesn’t do what the screenplay fully intended to and even the serial killer’s back story reminds one of the recent Tamil thrillers. The fact that John’s family angle remains mostly forgotten further contributes to the aforementioned feeling of watching something that’s incomplete.

But even here, as we pass through unsurprising reveals, it holds its atmosphere tightly to make sure we never take a break from this murky universe. Shaan Rahman’s score helps with the heavy lifting too but it’s the sound department that makes this film feel special. Of course, John’s inability to hear contributes to this factor too but the sound designers have used the opportunity to further the storytelling. Even regular scenes develop into complex exchanges when the dictaphone is thrown into the mix, adding a layer of not just listening to the dialogues, but also listening to it a second time, lest we’ve missed out on an important detail.

In John Luther, we get that rare police officer who isn’t all about the machismo. Besides being weak physically, we also see a strong man doubting himself and the instinct that made him a good officer. In the scene where John speaks to the doctor for the first time after the attack, Jayasurya gets you to buy into a facade of strength (for his family) as he realises that he will no longer be who he once was.

With this investment into his character, you want to see a few more chapters in the life of John Luther. It’s a film that forces us to look beyond its follies to give you one episode in the life of a police officer, with loads to follow. Who knew a police procedural about a serial killer would get overshadowed by a character study about a cop who has no chill.

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"Vishal Menon: Vishal dropped out of law school to focus on his fondness for film, particularly mainstream Indian cinema. He is a film critic, previously with The Hindu after a stint at Deccan Chronicle and Reuters News. If you thought the book was better than the movie, don’t tell Vishal.."
  
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