ANIMAL Review: A Brutally Bloody Film About a Bloody Brute of a Man
Masculinity is equally toxic and fragile in Animal, director Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s long awaited follow up to his controversial 2017 surprise blockbuster, Arjun Reddy. That debut feature followed the chaotic descent of a man who treated women and the world with a kind of violent dismissiveness that alternately shocked, disgusted, and invigorated audiences across India – a rare thing for a fairly inconspicuous feature without any major stars. Animal takes that same route, but with a budget and ambitions manifold beyond its predecessor and explodes the imagine of the Indian male – and by extension the Indian film hero – in a way that is at times shocking, exciting, utterly bombastic, and occasionally incomprehensible. In short, Animal is a lot of movie, and what you get from it really depends on what you bring, but it’s impossible not to have an opinion.
At the center of the maelstrom of murderous machismo is leading man and Bollywood hotshot Ranbir Kapoor, I hesitate to use his character’s name, because its reveal is a major climax within the film itself for some reason, let’s just call him The Animal. Kapoor is a man hopelessly devoted to his industrialist father Balbir Singh (Anil Kapoor – Slumdog Millionaire, 24, Race, Mr. India), for reasons to which we aren’t really given access.
Though Balbir is too busy to engage with his son, frequently missing birthdays and other such events, he looms large as a titan in The Animal’s life, to the point where there is nothing more important than defending Dad and his honor. In Dad’s absence, The Animal develops, shall we say, unhealthy coping methods when it comes to dealing with anyone who might attempt to slight his family or question his loyalty, up to and including ultraviolent murder. But the movie for the most part expects us to go along with his seemingly unending rage. Why? It’s a question that doesn’t ever get a satisfying answer, rather it invites us along on The Animal’s brutal flights of vindictive fancy, and if it’s blood you want, blood you’ll get.
Animal, for all of its ambitions of examining the detrimental effects of toxic masculinity unbounded by the petty constraints of budget or traditional morality, is an explosive marriage of South Indian action and North Indian star power. Ranbir Kapoor is one of Bollywood’s brightest stars, having proven his talent in films like Anurag Basu’s Barfi! and Jagga Jasoos, as well as his box office might in 2022’s Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva. But what he hasn’t done is a straight up “hero” role like this one. It’s a kind of uniquely Indian phenomenon; a hyper-masculine leading man who solves their problems with guns and knives, for whom women are mostly props, and to whom nothing matters but the utter destruction of their foes.
Over the last decade, the hero – which has existed in Indian cinema for decades – has evolved to this one-dimensional apex, leaving little room for nuance, largely dismissing emotion as weakness. Ranbir Kapoor has held out longer than most as the archetype for the role has migrated from Tamil and Telugu cinema northward. Animal has flashes of dimension for the character – moments of romance, tenderness between our hero and his sisters, glimpses into a past that really needs more light shone upon it – but it never gives us quite enough to feel for The Animal, more than we are being as punished by him as all those around him.
When an attempt is made on Balbir Singh’s life early in the film, The Animal goes into overdrive, killing literally hundreds of men in the search for the perpetrators. The switch, when it flips, is instantaneous, he moves from hot-headed Daddy’s boy to indestructible, conscience-free terminator without hesitation, leading to what are perhaps Animal’s finest moments, its absurdly over the top action sequences.
Whereas Vanga’s previous feature was a character study, Animal is a full-on action film with a capital A. Telugu cinema is known across India – and now the world thanks to S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR – as the home of ecstatic, creative, physics-defying action, and with a blank check in hand, Vanga really went for broke. There are a number of action sequences throughout the film that borrow the lack of regard for logic that plagues/blesses South Indian cinema throughout Animal, but what this film has that most of those don’t is a budget to match their imaginations. While The Animal as a character is utterly unredeemable, The Animal in control of a four-wheeled, fifty-caliber gatling gun mowing down two hundred of his most bitter enemies is a sight to behold.
Borrowing liberally from the imaginations of the Wachowski’s Matrix fights, Animal adds absolute rivers of blood to the equation, creating one of the most violent Indian films ever presented on the big screen. If that’s your bag, you’ll certainly leave sated, though not without having endured lots and lots of ferocious inhumanity in-between.
For all of its bombast, and there is more than enough, Animal purports to tell a kind of human story, though to what end I’m still not ultimately sure. His love for his father, his overprotectiveness of his sisters, his undying belief in his own piety, it is all on display, though none of it is given a truly convincing reason for being.
Central to The Animal’s life appears to be his relationship with his wife Geetanjali (Rashmika Madanna), though even that relationship is soiled from the start. Connecting with her at her engagement ceremony to another man by – among other things – observing her “big pelvis”, The Animal’s powers of persuasion are dubious at best, but she goes along. Eventually following him off to a private plane which they nearly fly into a mountain while having sex without a pilot, just for kicks.
From there on our Geetanjali spends two-thirds of the film as a prop upon which The Animal acts out his misogyny, misanthropy, and self-hatred. She’s used, abused, humiliated, but ultimately succumbs to some kind of charms to which the audience it not made privy. The Animal yells at her, gets fat, gets skinny, gets sick, cheats, and all in the name of revenge, and she is meant to continue moving forward. She fights back, but to what end? Men like this have no need for outside opinions of their action, much less from women.
The Animal attacks, it’s what he does. He attacks his enemies, he attacks his friends, even when he seeks solace among estranged family, it is in service of the next attack. There is no repose in this film, it is constant forward motion, leaving an ever-widening wake of violence behind. Soon this wake will envelop the world, but The Animal doesn’t care. When it circles back on him, he’ll fight that too. There are no lessons to be learned, only scores to be settled, which result in new scores, new vendettas, a cycle that will never end. Forever and ever, amen.
Already a controversial figure in Indian cinema after Arjun Reddy, Sandeep Reddy Vanga takes no prisoners in Animal. The discussion of depiction versus endorsement is fertile ground for discussion within his small but powerful oeuvre, and it’s one that I still find myself navigating. There is no way that Ranbir Kapoor’s character in Animal is supposed to be a sympathetic character any more than Vijay Devarakonda’s was in Arjun Reddy, but their existence on cinema screens demands examination. The issue at play is that there is no answer to these men. There is no examination of why they are what they are, we are simply expected to accept that they exist either enjoy the chaos or love to hate them.
As a piece of over-the-top uber-hyperbolic masala cinema, it’s difficult to argue that Animal doesn’t on the promise of the premise, but it’s also tough because it feels like Reddy was going for more this time. Animal is one of the bloodiest films I’ve ever seen, with guns, knives, machetes, bombs, and every conceivable manner of destructive device in play at all times. There’s something to admire in its audacity if nothing else. But the idea that it is attempting to examine this character falls more than a little flat in the execution, especially for those who aren’t terribly familiar with the tropes involved, the actors, the history of the filmmaker and the controversy around him, and all manner of intricacies of Pan-Indian cinema.
For a film that intentionally evokes the spirit of Hitler in its hero, this reviewer is shockingly torn in his assessment of the film as a whole. For fans of violent action, there are numerous extended sequences of carnage that are well worth your time, but will you cheer for the eventual victor? I honestly hope not.
Animal gives us no happy ending, no lessons learned, just the promise of more of the same, perhaps even less tethered to the unfulfilled promise of redemption. It’s a conundrum, a film that tempts the viewer with the promise of a realization, a hope for a better future, which is repeatedly dashed in favor of more unfettered, unanswered bloodshed.
I honestly don’t know what to say. If this examination of a film that refuses to examine itself is appealing, have at it. But be warned, Animal is a rough one, and not for the faint of heart.