Nature is cruel and horrific.Yes, it can be beautiful. It only takes a trip to a major natural landmark to establish that, but the entire premise of “life” is predicated on barbarism: murder to survive, starvation for those that don’t, ultimate extermination of anything that can’t assert its dominance at the top of the food chain. And a fair existential question is: If your chances in life of experiencing consistent suffering are so high — much higher than living a life of ease and pleasure — then why should we keep trying at this experiment in life at all? Most people — myself include — would respond with: family, friendship, romance. Those heights transcend the inherent tragedy of life, but in the bleak Russian drama Leviathan, it’s not easy to keep those escapes in mind when an avalanche of tragedy takes hold.
The story of Job as I imagine Michael Haneke might conceive it, Leviathan equates the oppressive cruelty of nature and life with existence under the post-Soviet Russian state and unlike Job, a benevolent God doesn’t exist at the end of the tunnel of your trials. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a hot-headed mechanic in a small, coastal town in northern Russia, faces the seizure of his home and garage by his town’s corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Although Kolya’s former army buddy and closest friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a handsome lawyer from Moscow, has dirt implicating the mayor in gruesome crimes, Kolya’s temper, the deep unhappiness of his long-suffering wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and the oppressive power of the Russian state threaten to grind Kolya away until there’s nothing left but his bones… not unlike the titular skeleton of the “leviathan” whale on the town’s coast.
Any further discussion of Leviathan‘s plot would rob the viewer of the mental gymnastics it puts you through. Leviathan is the rare jigsaw film where the pieces missing aren’t obscuring the solution of a traditional “mystery.” Leviathan is a character drama through and through — though with a level of grand archetypes and misery that touches the scale of a Shakespearean tragedy — and the pieces of the puzzle missing here are needless exposition and explicit definition of character motivations. Leviathan is built around implication, half-said truths, and white lies. And while that lends the film a sense of turgid pacing for the first two acts, the curtain is finally drawn back and all the pieces are laid on the table by the end, and Leviathan rewards you with a portrait of the excruciating, de-humanizing forces of nature and life that you can no longer ignore.
And although Leviathan works in a minimalistic vein, the clarity of its psychology is clinically precise. Kolya’s son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) resents his adopted mother Elena but he stumbles into an emotional tailspin when he discovers her in a moment of impropriety. Dima is willing to take a bullet for Kolya — the two aren’t siblings but refer to each other as brothers often — but he’s capable of his own betrayals. Kolya can beat a man within an inch of his life, berate a priest on the nature of suffering, and then carry the priest’s groceries to the rectory. Lilya is the family’s moral center all while she holds onto a cancerous well of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Vadim will kill to protect his political career but he’s deeply loyal to the church. Though the film forces you to spend two and a half hours wondering what exactly any character was thinking, it always translated the complex well of emotions and conflicts and decision-making that were running through their mind.
That dichotomy between the film’s minimalist approach to POV and the richness of its details becomes disorienting. Though Leviathan displays a richness of psychology and detail, it withholds empathy and catharsis like an entomologist studying insects beneath glass. Shot primarily in long takes and medium-to-long shots, Leviathan emphasizes the distance between its characters’ presentations and realities. The most sympathetic figure in the film, Lilya, is the one whose exact thoughts we see and hear least — her face a mask of pain and rage and desperation. The most fully drawn figure, Kolya, is only outranked by the mayor in terms of belligerent anger and hostility. Leviathan‘s camera records; it rarely makes explicit judgments.
Kolya’s petulant, childish aggression could come off as cartoonish in lesser hands but Aleksey Serebryakov‘s tight, tense performance carries the film. Looking like an emaciated, middle-aged Max von Sydow, Serebryakov brings a feral intensity to the role with every minor scrunch of his face. He is a man used to ruling his roost with an iron fist, and his world is crumbling around him, and Serebryakov’s posture fades as each new disaster arrives — and the film is a cavalcade of tragedy — with his rigid physical authority only returning when he sees an opportunity to demonstrate power. Elena Lyadova finds Lilya’s heartbreak in a dead stare and averted gazes. Lyadova makes little eye contact throughout the film. And why should she? She is a woman in a world where men — including her husband and stepson — wound her at every opportunity. And Roman Madyanov’s sweat and quivering jowls help to paint Vadim as the cornered rat he is.
Leviathan‘s ability to detach itself from its characters — through its visual tricks and unconventional pacing — makes a post Leviathan conversation a philosophical cavern worth exploring, but it also makes the viewing experience of the film occasionally torturous. Leviathan is the sort of unapologetically bleak film that young Lars von Trier would have been proud to make. Human nature can exhibit kindness but it is selfish and dangerous at its core. And director Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s decision to shy away from any comfortable audience stand-in makes the film an exercise in suffering without release. It becomes physically draining and there’s no redemptive lesson to be wrested from the film. There’s only the cruel avarice of a malevolent creator — except instead of a cold and distant God, you have Vladimir Putin and crony politics.
Final Score: A