Jallikattu review

“Jallikattu: A traditional spectacle in which a bull is released into a crowd of people, and multiple human participants attempt to grab the large hump on the bull’s back with both arms and hang on to it while the bull attempts to escape.”

There’s one thing for certain: you’ve never seen a film like Jallikattu. Partly because director Lijo Jose Pellissery struggles to have his movies promoted stateside, equally because culturally representative filmmaking on this level doesn’t typically work as well in the U.S. market. Communist politics with tribal undertones as a bull runs rampant through wooden village architectures? This is primal storytelling at its rawest. It’s a descent into barbarism that’s vividly unique, no doubt divisive, and the most extravagant sensory overload you’ll either applaud or detest.

Jallikattu is corralled calamity on an unseen level. Whether or not it’s your vibe is a completely different story.

You couldn’t ask for a simpler premise. On a normal day, a local butcher would slaughter a bull and sell the meat to locals – the only source of “prime” cuts. Today, handlers lose grip of the buffalo and allow mayhem to commence. Politicians couldn’t care less, technology consists of bamboo spears or rock projectiles, and everyone wants a cut. Villagers depend on this bull for their livelihood, which sets the stage for warring factions fighting off a wild animal causing mass destruction. Welcome to Jallikattu.

Understand that Pellissery isn’t delivering an outright creature feature. The film’s cinematography favors mob chases, torchlit hunts, and heaps of communal unrest. (A film called Tumbbad had my favorite cinematography of last year’s Fantastic Fest, and this year, Jallikattu offers its own maddened elegance of the most chaotic decadence.) This is a movie about characters who demand buffalo meat for their daughter’s engagement, or marketers who eye profits, or ousted citizens vying to reclaim vengeance. Jallikattu isn’t Jaws with a bull; it’s a civilization breakdown on a Prometheus level that happens to take place while a hooved animal rampages free. It’s a slower burn in the sense of tension derived from pulley systems breaking or greed overtaking, not victims being gored.

Cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan is the MVP of Jallikattu, who works with Pellissery to highlight the countless performers squeezed into frame who produce cataclysmic madness. Too many shots left me gasping. As chasers of the bull crest a clifftop, headlamps and torches highlight the overwhelming numbers the bull continues to evade. When the bull is discovered in a well, Gangadharan’s lens gazes upward as those same headlamps create a beaming circle looking down on a stationary cattle. Then you get into Act III and good golly, I’ve never seen such a writhing, arresting H.R. Giger representation of abandoned civility projected into my eyeballs. Jallikattu is alluring, unconscionable, and impossible to avert your eyes from – whether you’re engaged with it or hating every second.

Here’s the issue: there are seventeen thousand subplots intertwining as a bull throws his horns in between them all. Drunk out-of-towners show up drunk and chucking fireworks, demanding recognition. The town’s butcher attempts to regain some kind of responsibility, leading his team to wrangle the beast. Police officers couldn’t care less because Communist politics play into an isolated sense of disregard while commoners die attempting to reclaim the smallest safety in their lives. Rich socialites demand buffalo rations for coconut tapioca dishes while impoverished denizens risk their lives for the smallest cut of sustenance. It’s horrifying, vocal, and angry. It’s also not easy to follow. This is a warning and an adjustment tool.

Jallikattu overtakes every sensory receptor in the human body. Jallikattu is breathtakingly unique on a level that’s endlessly engaging. Jallikattu commits to unhinged depravity on a level that’s organically difficult to follow. Jallikattu is nothing you’ve seen and everything you should risk. Its brilliant sound design starts with Prashant Pillai’s chant-drum score and plays into meticulous “Hoos!” and “Has!” as if locals were collected around a campfire, leading into breathtaking filmmaking that destabilizes as much as it divides. You’ve never seen a movie like this, and again, whether or not it’s your jam is completely up to chance. A chance worth discovering something new, from another nation, that you’ll ten-thousand percent adore or despise. Still, it’s more worthwhile than the next play-it-safe mainstream movie.

/Film Review: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Matt is an NYC internet scribe who spends his post-work hours geeking about cinema instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don't feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged).