Director: Ashwin Saravanan
Oh, a serial-killer movie! That’s what I thought during the vicious opening scenes of Ashwin Saravanan’s fabulously twisty Game Over. The creepy camerawork by A Vasanth sustains this impression, with grainy images and a handheld vibe. Like in Michael Powell’s seminal voyeur-thriller Peeping Tom (released in 1960, which also saw the release of another seminal slasher movie, Psycho), we seem to be witnessing a sicko get off by murdering women and recording their final moments. A television report confirms the presence of a murderer at large. But wait! Serial-killer thrillers are built on fetishes, motives, and a reveal—either early on, or later—about the killer’s identity that makes us piece together a “story”, along with the protagonist. Game Over is not exactly that movie, but then, you could come at this film from several angles.
Here’s another angle. Game Over is a psychodrama about a suicidal video-game designer who’s afraid of the dark: Swapna, played by a gritty Taapsee Pannu (as always, the actress is more impressive at showing strength than vulnerability).
Here’s another angle. Game Over is a movie about a ghost possessing a body in order to extract revenge. (The means through which the “spirit” enters the body is genius, one of the most unique and imaginative plot points I’ve seen.) This angle involves a tattoo artist (Ramya Subramanian), and her place of business does sound like something to do with the afterlife: Immortal Inks.
Here’s another angle. Game Over is a movie where everything is just a surreal David Lynchian nightmare—or dream. (Look at the protagonist’s name again: Swapna.) The film boxes her into a house with only a watchman and a caretaker (an empathetic Vinodhini Vaidyanathan) named Kalamma. We see no neighbours, no parents, no friends. Maybe it is all happening inside her head!
In short, Game Over is a tight genre-hopping thriller that keeps you guessing about the genre it can be slotted into. (I swear, I’m still trying.) The small miracle of the film is that it manages to pack all of this—and a lot more—into 100-something minutes. (If I had to nitpick, I’d say there are a few pacing issues that make the film seem longer, but looking back, I can’t see what could have been left out.) The short running time is partly because the screenplay never stops to fully explain anything. Even the backstory, when we do get it, is presented in dream-like fragments. We get to know bits about a man from Swapna’s past who’s now behind bars. There’s a disturbing nod to a rape fantasy, and quick flashes of a traumatic incident from Swapna’s life. A psychoanalyst drops the name of a condition called “anniversary reaction”. (I was touched that Swapna took Kalamma to the session. It transforms their relationship in our eyes.) But instead of cohering into a “logical” (and conventional) story, these abstract jigsaw-pieces of information deepen the guessing game. Is Swapna mentally all-there? Or is this all some form of post-trauma syndrome?
I don’t want to make Game Over sound like a wankfest for cerebral cinephiles. It is that, for sure—a very enjoyable one, written by the director and Kaavya Ramkumar. (They follow a Roja–like structure that starts somewhere and darts off somewhere else before returning, around interval point, to the events at the beginning.) But the film also delivers on chills and violence (I winced at the sight of a hand being crushed) and at least one solid jump scare. The early scene where a terrified woman runs out of her bedroom ends with one of the most effective cuts I have seen. (The sensational editing is by Richard Kevin.) It’s not exactly a jump cut, but there’s a “jump” in the logical flow of events — and it’s shocking. And much later, the wait for Kalamma to re-enter the house, while we are left to guess her fate, is agonising. It’s just a few seconds, but it feels like an eternity.
So here’s another angle. Game Over has the relentless single-mindedness of a video game. (There’s a stretch with Virtual Reality, too.) In the past, reliving the traumatic incident, Swapna wondered: Should I have done this or that? Strip away the emotion from this statement and it boils down to decision-making, similar to how games are played, and Ron Ethan Yohann’s superb electronic score keeps slapping us with gamey synth sounds. Maybe that’s the real reading of the film—that life is a video game. Maybe that’s why we get posters that say: Real life makes me want to kill people in video games! And: What if life is a video game and déjà vu are just check points! In this reading, Swapna’s life is its own version of Pac-Man, the game she keeps playing. It’s a game that gives the player three lives. It’s an important detail.
Game Over is a bona fide original. To talk more about the movie will require MAJOR SPOILERS, so for those checking out now, let me just tell you that if your mind was scrambled by the plastic bags in Super Deluxe, you are in for a treat.
MAJOR SPOILERS till the end of the review. Here’s a final angle: the film is a female-empowerment drama, powered by the slogan: Fight like a girl. The other females in this reading of the film are Amudha (Sanchana Natarajan), who fought cancer three times, and her mother (Mala Parvathy, who resembles Sanchana Natarajan; it’s great casting). Game Over is about Amudha helping Swapna conquer her fears, her inner demons. The three killers remain masked, and thus, faceless. We never learn who they are and why they do what they do. They’re figurative. For all you know, they could be embodiments of patriarchy and misogyny, who kick women around like footballs. They’re animals. They don’t even speak to these women. (We only hear grunts). And they want to silence these women, too. Even the good guys, the cops, cannot really help. These women must do it alone. Game Over says that rape and other kinds of violence against women result in long-lasting consequences similar to that of cancer. To really uproot the disease, the woman has to fight back. It’s fitting that Game Over ends when a new year begins. With help from a sister, Swapna’s life begins anew.