Films about serial killers are as much about the hunt as they are about arriving at the answers. And therefore, the antagonist is just as important as the hero -- sometimes, even more so. Penguin, directed by Eashvar Karthic and now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, has an unlikely investigator. A hugely pregnant woman who must seek out a dangerous killer if she's to find her missing son.
That Keerthy Suresh can act is something she proved to the world with Mahanati, and with Penguin, she tells us yet again that she can do so much more than play the "bubbly girl". As a frantic and devastated mother who never gives up on the search for her firstborn though he's written off as dead by everyone else, the actor brings considerable gravitas to the role. She's in sharp contrast to the usual depiction of pregnant women on screen, who go into labour at the most inopportune time and cannot be trusted to get anything done.
Keerthy's Rhythm can walk fast, think on her feet, drive, and even interrogate a criminal. At one point, to underline this, she even says, "I'm pregnant, not brain damaged." Penguin suggests the clumsiness of pregnancy, but though the film glorifies motherhood, it chooses to do so in an unexpected manner -- I mean, the woman is hunting a serial killer for god's sake, not dying of noble starvation or childbirth in a rainy night, as is established celluloid practice.
But though Keerthy rises to the challenge and delivers a credible performance all through, the supporting cast is rather weak. The two men in her life -- her ex husband Raghu (Linga) and current spouse Gautham (Madhampatty Rangaraj) -- are played by actors who sleepwalk through the film with wooden expressions. Eashvar takes some interesting diversions from stereotypical writing by removing the romantic tension out of this triangle and keeping it to the issue at hand. However, the lines sometimes sound awkward, perhaps even more so because the performances fall short.
That said, the first half of the film had me clenching my stomach more times than I care to remember. Santhosh Narayanan's background score is haunting and builds up the creeps, mixing suspense with fear and making us hold our breath at every discovery. The film is set in a hill town and Kharthik Phalani's camera exploits the desolate landscape to make you feel distinctly uneasy even though the bloodshed and gore are minimal on screen, considering the genre.
Though Rhythm makes some puzzling choices (she keeps leaving her child alone despite knowing that there's a killer on the loose, for instance), you stay invested in her journey. Like Ponmagal Vandhal, this film too is about a killer who's after children. But the motive here is less apparent. And after it is elaborately revealed in a convoluted The Silence of the Lambs meets Vikram Vedha type of scene, it ends up sounding unconvincing. Without giving away too much, let's just say that ordinary people who kill for a specific reason and psychopaths who mutilate, maim and enjoy torturing their victims for years, have different psychological profiles. It's not easy for one to become the other.
Neither the red herring nor the actual antagonist get solid back stories. There's too much of telling and too little of showing in the second half. The script leaves us to make the connections and some of these links are quite weak. Why would a clever and careful killer, for instance, dump a piece of evidence that can be traced to them right near their house? I also wondered about the film's flimsy approach towards mental health -- Rhythm is shown to be depressed and suicidal after her son goes missing, but all that the doctor tells her is to be positive and not think about unpleasant things. What?! At least in films with such dark and disturbing themes, it is high time that our directors invested more effort in fleshing out the emotional make-up of the characters.
Penguin has its moments and Keerthy Suresh indeed makes the film very watchable. But it is probably time to ask if this pressure to include 'twists' isn't killing a good story only because it seems too simple. The twist upon twist formula gets tiring when the writing hasn't accommodated for them from the beginning. it's like delivering a cold splash of water on the viewer's face and expecting them to be happy only because they didn't see it coming. It's unexpected, sure, but not particularly satisfying.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.