Judge Jonathan Weiss is well, um, hanged. Yeah, that's it.
Who is guilty in the death of a criminal—the judge, the jury, or the executioner?
When one thinks of Indian Cinema, one usually can't help but envision a Bollywood spectacle—you know, singing and line dancing en mass somewhere in a rainstorm. Well, sorry to bust your bubble, but that's definitely not what you get with Shadow Kill—a moralistic tale created by multi-award winning writer and director Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
Facts of the Case
In 1940s India, just as Mahatma Gandhi began making a name for himself with his non-violent methods in advocating independence from England, a Maharaja-appointed aging hangman is beginning to have a conflict of conscience.
On the one hand, this is a respected position and considered somewhat holy—the hangman having to prepare himself spiritually before each execution. The mystical energy of this position is in fact so powerful that when someone from the village is sick, they are brought directly to the hangman, who will cut off bits of rope from the noose used at the previous execution, burn it with an accompanying prayer, and then use the ash to help cure the sick. For this effort, the hangman gets paid whatever the family can afford. On top of this increased social status, there are benefits from the Maharaja, including tax-free land, and a larger payout after each execution.
On the other hand, the previous execution was that of an innocent man, and the guilt of this knowledge has weighed heavily on the old hangman's soul. As he wrestles with his conscience, he drinks heavily, awaiting his next assignment. When it finally does arrive, he's not sure if he's strong enough to carry it out.
The beauty of watching a movie from another country is that the way in which they tell stories, as well as the stories themselves, are so completely foreign to the North American palette. So if you're sick of seeing the same old same old then it's a good bet that you might appreciate taking a trip outside the borders of Hollywood and traveling into some new territory. However, if dabbling in foreign films is somewhat of a new experience, then Shadow Kill might not be the right trip for you.
Cool title aside, Shadow Kill is a slow movie. Really slow. Incredibly, unbelievably, excruciatingly slow. Maybe something got lost in the translation. Maybe it's so completely of its culture that there's no way for us here in North America to appreciate it in the same way that Indian audiences do—if they do. It's hard to say.
Though the crux of the story is about a hangman that's losing his nerve in doing his job, there's a lot going on—only not all of it goes somewhere. There seems to be some importance in the fact that the hangman's son believes in the teachings of Gandhi; he weaves cotton and has become a vegetarian. Great; so what? He's got a younger daughter that has just gotten her period and so has reached womanhood. Great; so what? He's got another daughter who is married to a creepy guy that may or may not have an eye for the younger daughter. Great; so what? There are all these threads dangling like mini-nooses all throughout Shadow Kill but none of them actually get a firm grip on the story.
Here's an example. A representative from the Maharaja comes to the village to tell the hangman that his services are again needed, but the hangman tries to get out of it—he claims he's too unhealthy to serve. The representative isn't having any of it and so the hangman takes his Gandhi-following son with him to the city just in case he needs him. Tradition states that on the night before an execution the hangman must stay up all night; like the prisoner is up all night. To keep him awake, officials ply him with alcohol and decide to tell him stories.
One official tells the story of a young girl who meets an orphaned shepherd. They fall in love—the most innocent, sweetest love two young people could have. Meanwhile, the young girl's brother in-law has just recently seen her in a new light—as a young woman—and can't get her out of his head. He lusts for her. So much so that when he finds her alone in a field, waiting for her shepherd, he rapes and then murders her. The young shepherd is accused and tried. When the hangman asks which way the judgment went, the official laughs, silly hangman; it's the criminal you're hanging tomorrow morning.
Here's the wacky part. While the official is telling this story, the viewer watches the part of the young girl played by the hangman's own younger daughter. So did this actually happen to the hangman's daughter? Is the hangman's son in-law a murderer/rapist? Did the hangman himself help convict the shepherd boy so as not to ruin his family name? Who knows? It never becomes clear. The seeds were dropped early in the film with the quite obvious intent of building to this climax and yet it is never certain whether a) this actually happened, b) the hangman was using his own thoughts, worries, and feelings to flesh out the story, or c) the filmmaker was trying to make some kind of a point. And reading the filmmaker's comments in the extras section doesn't help clear anything up either. If anything he just adds to the confusion.
Supposedly this film was meant to be elliptical storytelling in that what happens at the beginning of the film is actually the result of what happened at the end of the film. So in other words we meet the hangman plagued with guilt over hanging the innocent man we hear about at the end of the film. Only the hangman doesn't hang the poor schmuck—after hearing the story about the poor young girl, he clutches his chest and passes out. It's the poor Gandhi-following son who has to do the dirty deed. So where does that leave us? Confused as hell, that's where. Let's not even mention that most people probably won't plow through the five or so screens of the director's film notes in order to get to this insightful revelation—so where does it leave them? Probably asleep on their couch ten minutes in, dreaming about ways to get their money back if they bought this film, that's where.
The footage is not just grainy—it's 1960s home-video camera grainy. It was a shock to find out that this film was actually shot in 2002. The lack of polish is so obvious that one begins to wonder whether it was somehow intended to look that way as part of the director's vision—only it's hard to see how unless he felt that it somehow added to the atmosphere of small village life in1940s India—but then that would be stretching it farther than any Indian Rubber Man could go.
Shadow Kill has all the signs of a person basking in his own brilliance. Based on all the awards he has won (which are listed in the extras section like some kind of IMDb resume) Adoor Gopalakrishnan is a truly accomplished filmmaker. Based on this film however, he seems more like a truly accomplished creative masturbator—foregoing his audience for the sake of his art.
First Run Features is not guilty for distributing movies that would most likely not see the light of day otherwise. Shadow Kill, on the other hand, is sentenced straight to the gallows.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Director's Film Notes
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