Unflinchingly tense, staggeringly well-made, thought-provoking, and brimming with emotion, Leviathan is a Chekhov-style family tragedy; a subtle, extremely barbed satire exposing criminality in contemporary Russia; a film possessed of both classic sweep and sharp modern relevance. Filled with a desolate beauty, it’s a stupendous piece of work, a tale for vertiginous times, a grave and enormous epic that’s impossible to ignore.
Not to be confused with the acclaimed 2012 whaling documentary, although likewise dealing with submerged monsters, Leviathan gathers like cautionary thunder about the dangers of fighting city hall corruption. Loosely inspired by the Book of Job and set against the Barents Sea, the grim Russian narrative recounts Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a man striving to protect his home from a behemoth: the belligerent town mayor, Mer (Roman Madyanov), who swills vodka like water and swaggers like a despot. Confronted with the imminent threat of demolition, Kolya recruits a slick Moscow lawyer, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to help, but his arrival brings further misfortune.
Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena) with cynicism, religious fervour, and an unflinching ambition, the incendiary and bone-rattling Leviathan is a trenchant and tough-minded tragedy, a black social comedy, and a thinly-veiled political parable drenched in bitter irony. Zvyagintsev credits Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 tome of the same name for inspiring its outlook on governmental control; its rolling scope, astonishing cinematography, and commanding performances make for a giant of a film, like A Serious Man meets House of Sand and Fog meets Revanche.
Stunningly shot and wrenchingly acted, especially by Madyanov, this is searing filmmaking executed on a grand scale. Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography captures the sublime grandeur of the landscapes. Zvyagintsev combines allegory, brutal melodrama, black humour, and striking compositions, each frame dense with meaning. Yet amidst the immaculate craftsmanship, he never loses sight of the humans, who are allowed to display improvisatory behaviour that deepens the majesty of the rigorously orchestrated tableaus. Indeed, the performances are knockout, and the script drum-tight, a Best Screenplay winner at Cannes.
Mammoth and muscular, haunting and heartbreaking, frustrating and painfully funny, Leviathan has a feeling of expansiveness; its power and its horrors sneak up on you. It’s a dense, multilayered picture, one firmly rooted in a specific landscape, a dramatic coastal spot dotted with the carcasses of decrepit fishing boats, as well as the magnificent skeleton of one long-dead whale. Absolutely gripping and emotionally devastating, Leviathan is visceral, rebellious fare, a modern classic weaving together rich characters, thriller elements, witty satire, and political bite. It’s indisputably one of the great films of the year.
Taking aim against the corrupt, corrosive regime of Vladimir Putin, Leviathan presents modern Russia as a country rotten to its core – corrupt, hypocritical, and godless. As sobering as a week-long hangover, it’s a symbolic, impossibly sophisticated portrait of a state that puts bureaucracy before community, about an unforgiving pyramid structure that helplessly crushes the little guy, with God, or at least the Orthodox Church, perched on top.
After offering a number of potentially heroic narratives, Zvyagintsev takes pleasure in undercutting each of their claims to supremacy. He is the calm surveyor of a fallen world, and Leviathan never writhes out of control. But Zvyagintsev’s pessimism is leavened by both his compassion and glancing comedy, as well as his sense of cold beauty of setting and bold, curious themes, which leave a lasting wonder.
Like so many Russian works of art, this is bleak, bleak stuff. Leviathan is a movie about a feeling, or more accurately, about a lack of feeling – about what happens to people in a dominant culture of bullying and abuse, when they have no escape except the next shotglass, no options except not waking up. The pitiless way that Zvyagintsev metes out punishments to all is savage, and you might want that four-way vodka by the end. But Leviathan has the heft and impact of a proper, old-fashioned Russian novel: it leaves you feeling changed at the end.
The shortness of life compensates for its brutish and nasty tendencies, and only the stillness of nature can provide a semblance of peace. In the world of this remorseless, brutal masterpiece, no wonder the bottle beckons.