The Netflix original film Raat Akeli Hai begins vividly, and fittingly, in the belly of the night. A woman and her driver are waylaid on a lonely highway and murdered. The crime is successfully covered up but leaves indelible traces – the first hint of the movie’s theme that the past will resurface despite every attempt to keep it out of sight.

Five years later, another death takes place after sundown, this time of a wealthy man soon after his wedding. The needle of suspicion points firmly at his vastly younger bride Radha (Radhika Apte). Everybody in the family despises Radha, who used to be the old man’s mistress. It hardly helps that she stands to inherit the property.

The murder is foul, but the murder victim is fouler. Bristling exchanges between the investigating officer Jatil (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and the victim’s kin suggest that the degenerate patriarch had it coming. Meddling by a politician and Jatil’s boss up the stakes.

Jatil’s efforts are complicated further by his ambivalent feelings towards Radha. His conservative half abhors her supposed wantonness. His unattached, manly half is turned on by this small-town femme fatale who is unashamed about her sexuality and speaks in riddles.

Radhika Apte and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Raat Akeli Hai (2020). Courtesy MacGuffin Films, RSVP and Netflix.

Honey Trehan’s directorial debut, based on a story and screenplay by Smita Singh, is set somewhere in Uttar Pradesh and in classic film noir territory. Raat Akeli Hai is a stylish and ambitious attempt to explore perversity, greed and lust through the prism of a murder investigation.

Jatil’s investigation takes him to the edge of a moral abyss, but he never quite leaps in. The 145-movie begins on an excellent note and explores its ideas with confidence before losing its edge. The build-up proves to be better than the big reveal. The baseness at the heart of the plot is exposed too early, rather than letting it be revealed in an incremental manner so as to maximise its impact.

Red herrings litter Jatil’s path. Another set of red herrings ensures ample distractions from the increasingly unwieldy narrative. Raat Akeli Hai is seething with solid acting talent, including Aditya Srivastava, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Nishant Dahiya, Shweta Tripathi, Shivani Raghuvanshi and Ria Shukla. The sleek editing, by Sreekar Prasad, creates a momentum that conceals the bloated running length.

Raat Akeli Hai (2020). Courtesy MacGuffin Films, RSVP and Netflix.

Even in its most unconvincing moments. Raat Akeli Hai is always gorgeous to look at. Pankaj Kumar’s mobile camerawork and sharp framing creates several tense, watchful moments. The rich colour scheme ensures that crimson is present in nearly every scene – a reminder of the blood-hot passions that have led to the murder.

Kumar’s night-time lighting is especially striking and conjures up unforgettable images, but there is a downside to the visual beauty too. The darkness at the movie’s heart is better seen than expressed through plot and action, more literal than metaphorical.

Is nothing as it appears to be? Not quite. Some of the family’s hidden skeletons are actually clattering about in plain view, but are ignored for the purposes of maintaining suspense. Several characters are given short shrift in order to prevent viewers from guessing the identity of the killer, and the ties between them are cursorily explored.

Among the actors who make a mark despite being underserviced are Aditya Srivastava as the politician with links to the slain patriarch, Nishant Dahiya as the victim’s nephew, and Ila Arun as Jatil’s wedding-obsessed mother. Arun, a fine performer who uses her raspy voice to great effect, unfortunately has little to do other than fuss over Jatil’s marriage prospects.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Raat Akeli Hai (2020). Courtesy MacGuffin Films, RSVP and Netflix.

Jatil, who is in nearly every frame of the movie, initially appears to be a more nuanced version of the archetypal dogged investigator who inevitably barks up the wrong tree before finding his spot. Jatil’s attitude towards women in general and Radha in particular is questionable. References to Jatil’s dark complexion mark him as an outsider in this set-up, just like Radha.

However, the metaphor of darkness stretches only this far. Jatil soon lapses into the white knight cop we know all too well from previous crime thrillers. The movie is too fond of Jatil to allow him to reflect some of the patriarchy being battled by Radha. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is always watchable, but Jatil stops growing after a point and loses his distinctiveness.

Radha, initially described as a manipulative temptress, similarly sheds her mystique early on. Radhika Apte plays Radha as a sullen victim rather than an object of desire with secrets of her own. Ample screen time is devoted to Radha’s brutal back story. My heart is covered with rust, Radha tells Jatil, but the character never quite breaks out to make the journey from darkness to light and bondage to liberation.

Raat Akeli Hai (2020).

Also read:

Honey Trehan on journey from casting to directing ‘Raat Akeli Hai’: ‘Have to be true to the script’