Irul Review: A Thriller That Wonders What Makes Writers And Criminals Tick

Devarsi Ghosh
·4-min read

Naseef Yusuf Izuddin’s Irul is a perfect anti-date movie that will hopefully convince couples to stay indoors and not head out during the still ongoing pandemic. It is also a warning to not date writers.

The Malayalam-language Netflix film follows lawyer Archana (Darshana Rajendran) and her writer boyfriend Alex (Soubin Shahir), who drive away from the city during the weekend. Because Archana’s work calls come in the way of Alex’s romantic endeavours, and the rest of the Sunil Yadav-scripted thriller has to be set up, Alex has ensured they have not brought their cellphones along.

It is dark and raining when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Archana and Alex head to the nearest house in search of a phone. The house belongs to a mysterious man who calls himself Unni (Fahadh Faasil). Unni’s house is as gothic as it gets. Stacked wood bookshelves reach the ceiling. Candles abound. Medieval figurines lurk behind shadows. There’s a painting of a dead mother.

Unni, himself, dressed in a silk gown snarls and hisses with his cryptic manner of speaking. Alex has written only one novel, Irul, which is based on a real killer of five women. Six, Unni says, before correcting himself. Unni is one of the few people who has read Alex’s novel and drives the conversation towards speculating what could drive a man to kill women.

Coincidences, contrivances, and corpses pile up in Naseef Yusuf Izuddin’s 90-minute locked-room mystery with a three-member cast. What keeps matters fresh and edge-of-your-seat are the splendid performances and assured filmmaking.

Alex (Soubin Shahir) has written only one novel, Irul, which is based on a real killer of five women

Shahir is superb as the neurotic writer Alex, insecure and vulnerable, for reasons which can perhaps only be ascribed to his writerly ways. Alex’s jagged temperament is contrasted with Unni’s feline unpredictability until a twist in the middle posits the mysterious host as a shifty crook, much like Faasil’s character in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017), which won him a National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Rajendran’s Archana is caught between the mind games played by these two men. If she escapes the night alive, she is surely going to be off Tinder for a long time. As the audience stand-in, Rajendran communicates Archana’s confusion and frustration reliably well. But Archana’s reluctance to bolt out of the house, in the face of increasingly morbid circumstances, is perplexing.

The ability to heavily suspend disbelief is key to enjoying the crisply-directed Irul.

A spectacular opening sequence juxtaposes Alex and Archana’s car ride into darkness with what’s waiting in store for them. A bird’s eye shot follows their car snaking its way through the mountains, much like the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Thunder in the distance and Sreerag Saji’s ominous score bridges this with close-ups of the darkly baroque interiors of the house Alex and Archana will soon find themselves in.

The film’s best scene comes early. Alex, Unni, and Archana’s back-and-forth discussion about what motivates a serial killer, and whether a writer can accurately represent their subject using only imagination instead of experience, unfolds over a long one-take shot.

The ability to heavily suspend disbelief is key to enjoying the crisply-directed Irul.

This conversation is a rare thought-provoking moment in an otherwise lurid and pulpy movie. This stretch brings to mind actual crime writers who turned out to be killers. There’s the Canadian Blake Leibel, whose 2010 graphic novel Syndrome contained descriptions of how he went on to murder his girlfriend some years later. Chinese writer Liu Yongbiao earned fame writing fiction about unsolved murders, and was eventually arrested for murders in the past. Polish writer Krystian Bala’s 2003 novel Amok contained clues of a murder he committed three years before. This became the basis of a 2008 New Yorker article, which was turned into the 2016 film Dark Crimes, starring Jim Carrey.

Inside this conversation lies the question of whether a writer can wing it in fiction without experiencing the subject personally – and whether research from second-hand sources is enough.

The supposed realism of the HBO series The Wire, which connects the failure of democratic institutions with crime in Black neighbourhoods in the American city of Baltimore, stems from its creator David Simon’s experience as a crime journalist in the city. Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, derive their lived-in quality because of their writers’ real experiences.

Irul, however, is not a movie concerned with these matters. It’s a yarn expertly spun by Sunil Yadav, and his Malayali co-writers, and Naseef Yusuf Izuddin. The anti-climactic end is not bothersome if one is willing to be taken for a ride by the plot. This is Naseef Yusuf Izuddin’s directorial debut, and if one thing is certain, it’s that he knows how to direct a thriller.