In 1971’s Straw Dogs, a mild-mannered mathematician played by Dustin Hoffman concocts elaborate death traps to get back at a gang of workmen who raped his wife. In 1974’s Death Wish, an architect played by Charles Bronson turns vigilante after his wife and daughter are attacked in a home invasion. Both films were considered too extreme for polite society, and were described, separately, as ‘quasi-fascist’ endorsements of violence. Spoilers ahead.
Thar, on Netflix, is less the Western black that it has been advertised as an old-school revenge thriller that puts a revisionist spin on films like Straw Dogs and Death Wish. Starring Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor as an enigmatic city-bred antique dealer who wanders into a Rajasthan village rocked by a series of brutal killings that would make Eli Roth proud, Thar also features his father Anil Kapoor as the local policeman, Satish Kaushik as the policeman’s right -hand man, and Fatima Sana Shaikh as a widow who flirts with the idea of becoming a femme fatale almost as strongly as she initiates a relationship with Harsh’s character, Siddharth.
It’s a slow-burn thriller that reveals new information judiciously, like one of the farmers whose faces it frames in haunting close-ups, looking to conserve water. The movie invites the viewer to play along, without talking down to anybody or overwhelming you with unnecessary exposition. It takes its time, for instance, in revealing that it was none other than Siddharth who was behind the methodical killings in the village, as retaliation for the rape and murder of his wife. Most viewers will be able to join the dots and draw conclusions prior to this big reveal, which happens right at the end of the film. But Thar isn’t the kind of movie that relies too heavily on shocking twists; instead, it devotes all its attention to crafting a compelling journey to them.
There was, however, a moment where I was convinced that it was all about to fall apart; that the tracks it had laid so meticulously over the past hour-and-a-half had a tiny gap that would derail the upcoming climax. As we’d all (hopefully) agree, the cinematic trope where a woman is brutalized only to aid in the evolution of a man is rather reprehensible, and rightly outdated. But fittingly for a film in which characters encounter many symbolic forks in the road, a crucial decision that Thar makes at the end is perhaps the biggest reason why it is able to avoid going down this rather problematic route.
The movie compels you to wrestle with your feelings about it during this five-minute stretch. Director Raj Singh Chaudhary had lingered on violence before, when Siddharth tortures his prey in the most gruesome manner possible, but the assault scene at the end felt unnecessarily gratuitous. “Why isn’t he cutting away?” I remember thinking. We don’t need to see the brutality; the implication would have been enough. But then, a few minutes later, I realized that this was sort of the point. Because in it’s heart of hearts, Thar is a feminist fable. That it spends most of its time on Siddharth’s mission is merely a distraction from its real objective, which is handing control over to Fatima Sana Shaikh’s character, Chetna.
In a final flourish, it has Chetna shoot Siddharth for his transgressions — for taking the life of her husband, yes, but also for leading her to believe that he actually has feelings for her. Chetna was projected as a meek character who’d always been blamed for things outside her control – from her infertility to her attraction towards Siddharth. Her wrenching power away from him, and violently using it to her own advantage, sends a strong message about what kind of movie this is. Far from being rewarded for his actions, Siddharth is punished for thinking that he could inflict pain upon others and get away with it. The cycle of violence that the world seems to be trapped in, and the blind male ego responsible for much of it, is what Thar wants to take aim at.
It does a disservice to itself by making references to the more black-and-white sensibilities of Sholay, a film with which it shares neither stylistic nor thematic similarities; Thar is actually a morality tale along the lines of A Simple Plan and Shotgun Stories, great crime dramas that I would strongly recommend.
Director Sam Peckinpah at least attempted some sort of introspection at the end of Straw Dogs, in which Hoffman’s character appears to have been changed by his actions. But the mere decision of letting him live is an act of forgiveness on the movie’s part. It was also a rich bit of the filmmaker to wag a finger at the audience for enjoying objectionable scenes of brutality, after having revealed in it mere minutes ago. Director Michael Winner made no such effort in Death Wish, which rewards Bronson’s character with an entire film franchise to himself.
Of course, we’ve seen versions of this trope – ‘fridging’, as it is commonly known – play out in countless Hindi movies as well. There is no bad idea that Bollywood filmmakers can’t remake in at least five different languages, after all. Following an initial wave of rape-revenge films in the 1980s and 90s, a second wave arrived — perhaps spurred on by the real-life 2012 Delhi incident — with films such as Bhoomi, Kaabil and Simmba. Each of these movies peddled similar ideas of lost honor from the man’s perspective; and they treated women as victims, and not as survivors.
Thar ends on a most poignant note. The dust having settled on the barbarism, Anil Kapoor’s Surekha Singh spots the village women walking along the literal no-man’s land in the desert and offers them a lift home. Finally unburdened of the men in their lives, they ride into the sunset. For women to live on their own terms, Thar suggests, men must first be obliterated — or, at the very least, be thrown into a Darwinian sandbox where they will eventually just kill each other. It’s an extreme idea, no doubt, but also rather sobering, don’t you think?
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fix about once the dust has settled.