This Russian film was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the last Oscars and I caught up with at a screening at a local theater. It’s a lengthy film, around two-and-a-half hours, with a very simple set up, which is that a small town mayor is using every trick in the book to get some land owned by a local business owner. The film begins by being about their battle and, to the film’s credit, they’re both kind of dicks, so you aren’t immediately in on who you’re supposed to be rooting for. But the film widens to show how this seemingly insignificant little argument impacts the lives of these individuals in deep and, ultimately, very tragic ways. The performances are tightly coiled, minimal on the outside, but reflective of deep emotions roiling under the surface. This is particularly true of Elena Lyadova as the landowner’s troubled wife and Vladimir Vdovichenkov as the landowner’s lawyer. The film is ultimately, I think, about the helplessness of individuals in the hands of the large things, the leviathans, if you will, that control our lives: political institutions, the legal system, religious institutions to some degree. But it’s also a film about the rage boiling under the surface in regular people in the face of that powerlessness and helplessness. It fits right into that very troubling trend I’m seeing lately in films about the pervasiveness of rage in modern society; it’s doubly troubling because these films have come from all over the world: A Touch of Sin from China, Wild Tales from South America, this one from Russia. This is a very moving subject for me and Leviathan handles it well, creating at times an atmosphere of palpable dread. There’s a grim sequence surrounding a picnic where most of the male characters congregate to show off their prized rifles and handguns and engage in target shooting, while also drinking; the sequence gets tauter and tauter and more and more soaked in the dread of violence as it progresses. This isn’t, as Wild Tales and A Touch of Sin are, about explosive violence; it’s about the constant threat of explosive violence.
There are, late in the film, a couple of really chill-bump inducing shots that I don’t want to spoil; but nature is a constant presence in this film which takes place in a rural, coastal town. The sea is a constant reminder of man’s ultimate powerlessness, a constant, looming, pitiless force of nature, waves roaring constantly on the rocky coastline. Ultimately, when all the political institutions and religious forces have had their day, this film seems to argue, all men are ultimately powerless in the hands of pitiless fate, merciless nature, a cruel God or perhaps a combination of all three. The film has flaws. It is too long, I think, and occasionally a bit too on the nose in communicating its bleak message. But I can’t ding the movie too harshly. It is a movie about the great questions and struggles of life and yet also a compelling drama about real people and real emotions. If this film finds itself unable to pull in the Leviathan it is struggling with itself, well, maybe that’s just testament to the helplessness of the artist, in the same boat and on the same stormy sea as the rest of us. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – bleak and hopeless film examines the helplessness of man in the hands of fate and the rage born of that helplessness; punishingly dark and only occasionally too overt in its bleakness. 3 ½ stars.