‘Leviathan’ is a 2.5 hour Russian drama that’s easily one of the most depressing and miserable experiences you’ll have in a movie theater all year. And yet, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a sickeningly powerful tale of mundane corruption that the exceedingly talented filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev uses to explore the painful reality of living in Putin’s Russia.
Having already scored the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Feature, the film is the frontrunner for the Oscar and is easily deserving of that honor. It’s a bitter little pill that goes down with the ease of a straight shot of hard vodka, and it’s vital viewing for those who enjoy such experiences (both cinematically and the drink).
The sad little story unfolds in a tiny coastal town in Russia. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a man of limited means and even more limited ambitions. All he really has beyond a son (Sergey Pokhodaev), a second wife (the mysterious Elena Lyadova), a crappy job and a hefty drinking habit, is his house which has passed through his family for generations. Unfortunately, it turns out that he won’t even have that anymore. The repulsively corrupt mayor Vadim (a magnificently filthy Roman Maydanov) has decided to take advantage of some obscure local laws to rob Kolya of his home with no compensation.
Kolya obviously isn’t thrilled and gets a drunken gangster-style intimidation meeting from Vadim for merely expressing his displeasure. Kolya has an ace up his sleeve, though: an old lawyer friend from Moscow. Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) believes he can save the house by easily digging up some dirt on the mayor. Unfortunately, the lawyer is operating under the assumption that the system he works for is there to serve the people. Nope, not so much. Many horrible things will happen to make that point clear in everyone’s mind.
The greatest strength of ‘Leviathan’ is the film’s oppressive atmosphere. As director Zvyagintsev has previously proven in such accomplished films as ‘The Return’ and ‘Elena’, he’s a visual master who knows how to worm his way into his audience’s mind to disturb and move them deeply. Zvyagintsev shoots ‘Leviathan’ in the gorgeously composed widescreen frames of an epic, even though his story couldn’t be smaller, more mundane or pathetic. He paints grand imagines of a world defined by failure.
There isn’t a resident in the town who doesn’t wear a well-earned frown of regret and failure. There’s no hope for these people. Power in the town is embodied by the mayor Vadim, a fat, lecherous, disgusting man who goes out of his way to ensure that not a single thread of his authority hasn’t been abused. The system was designed by men like Vadim for men like Vadim. He lives in a world where he can do anything he wants, and does, while everyone else is stuck trodding through depressing lives, sucking down vodka like water, and cursing their leaders. Any attempt to break out of that cycle is immediately crushed. That’s not just about political standing, either. The film also features plenty of murder, adultery and substance abuse. No form of corruption is left unexplored.
All of this may make ‘Leviathan’ sound like an oppressively bleak film. It both is and isn’t. Sure, the emotional response that Zvyagintsev gradually needles out of his viewers is a cross between abject horror and nauseating disgust, but he doesn’t just lean hard on those buttons to craft a disposable bit of misery-porn. No, Zvyagintsev’s work has a great sense of humanity as well, which makes the audience care deeply for these characters no matter how badly they’re all inevitably crushed by the system. The movie is also laced with a wicked streak of dark comedy. Not in a way that ever undermines the characters or the filmmaker’s tragic intent, mind you, just in a way that recognizes the perverse absurdity of this story and contemporary Russia at large, and is unafraid to wink at viewers while crushing their spirits.
Despite always retaining a small and humane vision, ‘Leviathan’ is a grand whale of a film from Andrey Zvyagintsev. (That’s a pun by the way. See the movie for more.) It’s a nasty and depressingly true vision of his homeland that deserves an audience in any country run by leaders happy to abuse their positions of power (i.e. all of them).