Rocky Movie Review: A meditative study on violence, a terrific directorial debut
Arun Matheswaran's Rocky is a gloriously bloody film bolstered by surreal imagery and strong moments of reflection
Rocky may seem like it’s in love with violence. I mean, necks are slit, eyes are gouged, and intestines get worn like garlands. And yet, it’s crucial to note that this film encourages plenty of contemplation—the kind you see its self-deprecatory protagonist, Rocky (Vasanth Ravi, whose deep-set eyes communicate a lot of unspoken anguish), often get preoccupied with. What are we, men, who are killing each other? What is this world that doesn’t seem to care? Through its use of wide shots, this film really drums in the sheer absurdity of all the violence, and why, even the very loneliness of existence. A film in love with violence wouldn’t introspect as much as Rocky does. The first chapter, for instance, is named: ‘Ungamma unna yen pethaanga theriyuma?’ Towards the end of the chapter, we get the answer, a punchline if you will, from Rocky. And yet, if you sat him down for a conversation, I dare say that he would likely disassociate himself from a parting punchline he delivers during the height of bloodlust. Rocky, after all, through long, lonely walks, and the ensuing fatigue that he hopes will provide him with some relief from the all-consuming guilt and regret plaguing him, has already realised that his life has spiralled out of control—and worse, that it’s just the beginning. Like many, who unwilling to accept responsibility, blame destiny, Rocky blames time in a charming sequence that doubles as a superb replacement for a conventional song. He calls time a sinner, a disease. And yet, time, as he knows, is indifferent; it doesn’t care about his accusations. That’s why within the same ‘song’, he recognises himself as a ‘beast’, an animal that’s ultimately feeding on self, for, as this film astutely notes, nobody benefits from violence, least of all the hapless women around these ‘beasts’. It’s incredible that Rocky communicates these ideas without the crutch of dialogues.
Director: Arun Matheswaran
Cast: Vasanth Ravi, Bharathiraja, Raveena Ravi, Rohini
The visual imagery in Rocky is gorgeous. There’s noir-esque black and white imagery; there’s a great eye for interplay between light and shadow, for striking use of colours like blue and yellow. Static shots, and I don’t use this lightly, seem like moving paintings. The wide shots don’t just exist to provide eye-catching imagery for the movie theatre screen; it serves to establish, with all the use of empty space, the apathy of nature, the absence of a benevolent deity. Indeed, there’s much scathing commentary on the concept of God, with the film beginning by stating the God Paradox (can God make a mountain he cannot lift?). At one point, Rocky speaks of how God cursed him, while the Devil embraced him. Perhaps it’s most revealing that when Rocky displays his unusual capacity for cruelty, he claims to be… God.
I enjoyed that Rocky doesn’t pay much heed to its straightforward plot or the potential to turn into a conventional gangster revenge film. The plot is very much there, yes, and armed with a screenplay that travels back and forth to reveal just the right amount of information each time. However, the film’s real focus is on exploring and presenting the mentality of this man who’s caught in a vicious cycle of vengeful violence and consequent retribution. It employs monologues and surreal imagery to capture the inescapable, Sisyphean plight of this anti-hero.
Given the film’s unflinching gaze on violence, it’s natural to be reminded of Korean cinema, and of the likes of Tarantino. A glorious pre-interval tussle between one and many feels like an ode to that famous fight sequence in Old Boy, as Rocky, tired and yet, relentless, piles on the bodies, even as he manoeuvres his way upwards through narrow corridors. An unforgettable visual is of Manimaran (a layered, menacing Bharathiraja) gazing almost in admiration, as a static shot—like in a video game—has us gasping at the full impact of what Rocky has done and is doing. Any film that has a chapter-division is going to get us thinking of Tarantino, let alone one with as much violence. There are what seemed to me to be other homages as well: An old Telugu song plays as a throat gets slit. Later, a car bonnet comes crashing on a man’s head over and over again—how do you not think of that Kill Bill scene in which a door gets slammed against a man’s face? As Rocky, a stone-cold killer, turns guardian for a vulnerable little girl, I also found myself thinking of Leon, The Professional. None of this is to suggest that Rocky is an imitation or that it lacks originality. I mean these comparisons as compliments. The film is very much its own, and even its setting speaks of an unspeakable cruelty in a neighbouring country. Much of the cruelty we see in the film happens by the sea, but it’s impossible not to hear the whispers of horror from what’s happening across it. Among the film’s many questions is one: In a world that’s as irrationally cruel, of what use is appealing to the mercy of a deity?
Darbuka Siva’s experimental background score is a heady pleasure as well. Guitars come to the party suddenly. Just when you think you have got a grasp of the film and its reluctance to use songs, a full-blown emotional song plays in the background to define a sibling reunion. A thrilling action set-piece plays out to mridangams. The best of the lot is that opening ‘song’, that lament against time from a resigned Rocky. You can spot similar resignation in Bharathiraja’s Manimaran as well, especially at the end when he lets out a wry smile. You see similar half-smiles from Rocky throughout the film, particularly when consumed by the high of vengeance. These aren’t men on opposite sides of morality; they are rather similar in a sense, these lonely men, driven to unstoppable violence by a thirst for revenge.
As deep films so often do, Rocky incites reflection. I caught myself thinking of existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger and his concept of ‘thrownness’ (to describe the feeling that we are arbitrarily ‘thrown’ into this world). It almost feels like Rocky and Manimaran contemplate something similar as they so often stand as lonely figures, the violence from and around them almost incomprehensible, and seemingly unavoidable. I enjoyed Rocky for inspiring such reflection, and for director Arun Matheswaran’s refusal to create a factory product with this plot. It may not be a perfect film—the performances sometimes feel rather rough on the edges, a deus ex machina at the end seems rather convenient—but it displays such a courageous tendency to stray from the ordinary that these tiny missteps don’t matter. For instance, Rocky, in a scene, is beaten bloody while forced to witness a horrific murder. Where normal films would exploit such a scene for tragedy, director Arun Matheswaran takes us away into surreal imagery to explore Rocky’s mind, as he is forced to process trauma and guilt. It’s a refreshingly deep creative choice from a filmmaker who, with Rocky, has made one of the more memorable debuts in Tamil cinema. Here’s hoping the authenticity of this voice remains as fierce in the years to come.