Beasts of the northern wild: Leviathan

Andrey Zvyagintsev makes sturdy, alert movies about lives on the edge of hysteria. Leviathan, another film about the misery of being Russian (seek 2009’s Elena), makes for uncomfortable viewing. Unfolding as a story steeped in realism, it takes a late turn into the didactic, as realism is wont to do when recording other people’s lives. It starts like Chekhov and ends as Zola.

Leviathan begins and ends with bookends: the detritus of hundreds of years of man fighting the elements, epitomized by the grey sea and rock and the crumbling rib cages of whales — the real leviathans. We’re in what is loosely defined as a town on the Barents Sea, more aptly described as a tentativeness of homes and smelting plants temporarily reclaimed from the elements. Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) himself has barely claimed his property from a bureaucratic onslaught instigated by Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the crooked mayor who at first makes Kolya offers too easily refused before he starts playing hardball. Helping Kolya is Dmitry, a longtime lawyer pal from Moscow, a city mentioned by townspeople in tones reserved for the Magic Kingdom. “We’ve got them by the balls!” Kolya says at the dinner table, often and too optimistically. His second wife Lilia (Elena Lyadova) bears the weight of having dismissed his false optimism for years. The same goes for his boy Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), unsure whether Kolya’s volatility will result in a mock beating or the real thing.

Financing as much as thirty-five percent of the production according to some reports, the Russian government didn’t reckon with scenes in which these villagers, awash in vodka, use photos of Lenin, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev for target practice. The grim half-smiling official portrait of Vladimir Putin, positioned like one of the Orthodox priest’s icons, glowers during a debate among Vadim and his cronies about what to do with Kolya — “within the law,” of course, as one cop reminds them. “If I don’t get elected…well, need I say more?” Well, Vadim needn’t. The presence of the handsome, unflappable Moscow lawyer offends him, the caudillo of a town where the chief of police and judges are in his pocket. To show how easily the lawless can reduce the law into a blunt instrument when wielded against the helpless, Zvyagintsev films a scene in which these judges recite in numbing legalese Kolya’s suit against the town. And just in case Kolya gets any funny ideas about where he can seek recourse Zvyagintsev unmasks the local Orthodox satrap, in cahoots with Vadim and ready with Biblical emollients: “As long as God wishes it, you need not worry.”

Paced like a work of printed fiction, Leviathan has no visual excitement. Zvyagintsev hands the audience the movie as if it were herring on a plate. Even Philip Glass’ score is for him unobtrusive. Its pleasures come from watching the rather schematic working out of the plot. Not even Michael Haneke and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne toyed with such a delight in the inversion of Manichean justice. Everyone drinks in Leviathan. A lot (Vadim looks like a boil that needs lancing). The good guys want help but have no one to ask. Dmitry and Lilia’s rather joyless affair fizzles when the former is too flip about his absence of faith.

It’s after this muddle that Leviathan turns into another movie: not a better one, for to claim so would deny Zvyagintsev’s effort at laying out causes and effects in the first two-thirds. Secondhand and possibly misconstrued information about what Dmitry and Lilya may or may not have done out of sight of the shooting party mentioned above gives Vadim the opening he’s been waiting for. Husband and wife inch towards reconciliation. Will she move to Moscow with Dmitry? This to-ing and fro-ing confuses Roma. One minute he sneaks up on his father forcing himself on Lilya in the basement; in the next they look at each across the kitchen table with bedroom eyes. Lilya herself is changed. She sits in bus seats with the energy of a zombie. More vodka.

Including hers and Roma’s points of view after ninety minutes of male posturing is like stepping outside a smoke-filled room, and where Leviathan ends looks strikingly like how it began. The allusions to Job fizzle: Madyanov, with his ravaged-seawall Max Von Sydow mien, is up to it, but Zvyagintsev hasn’t honored any character’s grappling with even a morsel of spiritual restlessness, therefore the Biblical story adduces a quasi-nihilism. Spiritual yearnings, I suppose, require sights like Kolya swigging the inevitable vodka, staring at the sea and whispering “Why me, Lord?”

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