Film Review: Leviathan

Grim Russian Recasting Of Biblical Parable Is Intimate, Challenging

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
The local playground leaves something to be desired.
Share ::
Every year there is a new pile of smaller, independent or foreign language films that get nominated for Oscars. These films frequently lack the budget for advertising and distribution that Hollywood’s splashier, more star-oriented movies have. As a result, getting an Oscar nomination can be a major boon to these films’ visibility and profitability. The problem is that actually winning an Oscar is even better. So a lot of risk-taking film distributors hold out until late February, waiting for the results of the Academy Awards. Unfortunately, only one film in each category is going to win, leaving at least four others out in the cold. So here we are, one week after the announcement of the 2015 Oscars, greeting the release of a film that lost out on the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar to Poland’s nun-based Holocaust drama Ida (which never even opened in our market). Make no mistake; Russia’s official entry, Leviathan, is still a good film—just as credible and artistic as it was before Oscar night. But its chances of capitalizing on the award ceremony are now rather slim.

If you look at the Oscar nominations as some general stamp of quality, however, then there’s every reason to believe
Leviathan is better than the majority of foreign films that have been released in the last 12 months. It is. But the film arrives in theaters with certain caveats.

Leviathan is the work of writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, The Banishment, Elena), a Russian realist with a taste for glum domestic dramas. Leviathan takes place in a rural, coastal town where everything, regardless of actual hue, seems washed in gray: the ocean, the grass, the houses, the people. Among these gray-faced folks is Kolya. Kolya (longtime Russian film and TV actor Aleksey Serebryakov) is a hotheaded local mechanic whose family has lived in town for generations. He’s currently embroiled in a battle with the fat, drunken, openly corrupt mayor who has seized Kolya’s home and garage, and is planning on demolishing them for a new “communication center.” Having used up just about every legal appeal open to him, Kolya turns to his old army pal Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Taras Bulba), a slick lawyer with a connection or two in Moscow.

Dmitriy shows up in town with a dossier, allegedly given to him by some Communist Party muckety-muck, detailing the mayor’s assorted crimes and misdemeanors. The idea is to gently blackmail the jerk into playing ball and relenting on the destruction of Kolya’s home. The problem is Kolya is nearly as big a jerk as the mayor. Rather than confronting his problems head-on, he’s constantly asking “Why me?” and wondering what he did to deserve his life of hardship and strife. His M.O. is to avoid all forms of conflict, quietly take the abuse of people around him, get rip-roaring drunk and then explode.

Though you might be misled by the setup,
Leviathan is no tense thriller. It’s a slow-burn arthouse opus that takes its own sweet time laying out characters and settings. Kolya’s struggle with the mayor soon takes a backseat, allowing a wave of personal drama to come to the forefront. Bringing his old army buddy in to help only seems to compound Kolya’s problems, and his bitter self-pity grows ever more intense. Some ways into the film, our main man (up to his tonsils in vodka) confronts the local priest about the fairness of his fate. The priest responds with that old canard about Job. (“Hey, God treated Job a hell of a lot worse,” seems to be the standard answer in these situations.) More importantly, the priest offers up a choice Bible quote: “Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?” That’s as poetic a spin on “You can’t fight the system” as you’re likely to get—and it more or less sums up Kolya’s situation, raging impotently against the powers that be, both governmental and spiritual.

Leviathan is more or less a modern-day take on the story of Job, Zvyagintsev has other, even loftier aspirations. If you wanna go full-on literary, Zvyagintsev is also evoking (in both title and theme) Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 tome of the same name. Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil concerns the structure of society and legitimate government. In it Hobbes argues that people should live freely but peacefully with one another under what he terms a “social contract” (while at the same time arguing for the absolute, unimpeachable power of the monarchy).

Zvyagintsev spends almost as much time gazing at the harsh, stoney, beautiful, isolated, imposingly alien environment of rural Russia as he does following his characters. That’s a clue. Clearly, our main character is living in what Hobbes would categorize as “a state of nature”—that is to say as an unsocialized savage locked in a “war of all against all.” At the same time, our filmmaker is pondering just how good a job today’s Russia is doing maintaining Hobbes’ proposed civil social contract with its citizens. Given the brutish, Putin-like politicos and angry, impoverished people on display here, Zvyagintsev is filled to overflowing with cynicism.

Even without the political and spiritual background filled in,
Leviathan is an accessible enough tale of small-town corruption and hopelessness. What with all the hypocritical politicians, redneck citizens, guns and liquor, AMC could easily reshoot this as a miniseries set in Wasilla, Alaska. In the right mood, it’s a grand cinematic gesture from a master filmmaker well worth paying attention to. Just don’t go in expecting the best foreign film of the year. Its density, length, pacing, unrelenting glumness and wealth of dangling story lines keep it from perfection—and, it would seem, Oscar glory.

1 2 3 272