Right from the beginning, Penguin proves that it has cunning twists up its sleeve. To start with, the film is not set in Antarctica. Ooh, I bet you didn't see that coming! There's more. You thought Charlie Chaplin's prop was a walking stick. Now, it's an axe! And the comedian's garb is appropriated by a serial killer — or maybe this is just a one-off kidnapper. (Do penguins eat red herrings?) But I think my favourite twist is the name of the heroine, played by Keerthy Suresh. It's Rhythm. No, it's Ritu. No, it's Rhythm. No, it's Ritu. I'm going to settle for Rhythm. It has a nice, um, rhythm to it. That's more than you can say for this supposedly moody thriller, which mistakes mists and a blueish palette for atmosphere.
One hates to write off the efforts of a first-timer: the writer-director is Eashvar Karthic. But his whole attitude to filmmaking is that of making an arty music video, with slow camera movements and staging that screams to be noticed. Take the scene where an abducted little boy is found after years. It's set during the night, and the boy and his mother are carefully lit by the headlights of cars on either side. The director is so in love with this frame that he treats it like… a frame. The visual lasts so long, you may feel it's mounted on a wall. Other times, you can almost predict the shot. The face of a sleeping child stays out of focus as a door is being closed; as soon as the click of the lock is heard, you know the face is going to come into focus, and you know those eyes are going to flip open. Don't ask why, though. Like a lot of things in this film, it's just for a momentary "effect".
This sort of fussiness would be tolerable (i.e., you could laugh it off as the over-excitement of a bunch of young talents) if the rest of the film measured up in terms of the things we usually care about: characters that make sense and who we can root for, dramatic situations that are either revelatory or moving, suspense that perches us at the seat's edge. But there's very little of that, either, in this story that revolves around Rhythm. She has a past involving a missing child. Six years on, she's pregnant and finds herself determined to track down the person responsible for that missing child. At least, that's what the story slowly turns into. Or are we in the realm of the supernatural, with mysterious insect swarms and a demon-child who's able to tap into his mother's dreams and sketch those images out?
But I quickly stopped caring, and quickly grew exasperated with Rhythm, who keeps endangering herself and her unborn child. The only way to make this sort of thing work is to write the character the way the protagonist of Fargo was written. The woman is a no-nonsense cop. She also, BTW, happens to be pregnant. Because the no-nonsense-ness of the character is so well-established, we don't think twice about the fact that the child may be in danger. We know this woman can take on anything that comes her way.
But Rhythm is presented to us as a series of frames that capture her as worried or caring or scared or just plain sad. You just don't see any grit. You just don't see any kind of resolve that rose from a traumatic event in the past. You just don't see her dragging her pregnant belly into the killer's lair. Here's what's really aggravating about Penguin (in Tamil, the title is spelt Penn-guin, the first syllable denoting the feminine). This is the rare story that — like Fargo — centres not just on a woman, but a mother. It's about motherhood, that fierce instinct to protect one's young. There's another rarity: a woman who picks up the pieces of her life after a broken marriage and moves on. (The child inside her is from her second husband.) The one scene with genuine emotion is when the mother of a missing child is found unconscious on one of the many roads she's been distributing "have you seen this girl?" flyers. That's such a well of emotion to draw from. But…
Put differently, like in most of our movies, the writing is the real serial killer, snuffing out scene after potentially interesting scene. Let's say you are able to overlook the dialogue, which swings between lame and lamer. ("He is definitely a ruthless monster", says a doctor about the killer, for the benefit of those of us in the audience who may have thought the killer was a compassionate angel of mercy.) You'd still be wincing at the exposition: the way Rhythm's background at an orphanage is brought up, the way her second husband proposes to her, or the way a doctor randomly begins to talk about a painting. With the exception of Linga, the male actors are terrible. Put them through the woodchipper in Fargo and you'd end up with enough matchsticks to last a lifetime.
There's a stretch that resembles the Jodie Foster-Anthony Hopkins mind-games in The Silence of the Lambs. It would have helped if at least one of the equivalent characters here had been established as a sadistic game-player. But the film doesn't care about why people do things. (The final reveal is beyond ridiculous.) The heart bleeds at the missed opportunities, like the scene where Rhythm has a moment with her ex, and I felt very sorry for Keerthy Suresh, who's stuck with a character whose motivations — at any given point — are: "Er, uh, it says so in the script." Even the title has no motivation, unless you consider that the penguin is a bird that cannot fly. This is a film that never takes off.