We critics like to think that we are able to watch things in a vacuum and that we can give pretty much anything a fair shake at any time, but the truth is each viewing experience is influenced by a number of tiny factors that can play into your impression of a given film. Very rarely will something happen at a theater which will make a great film seem bad or a bad film seem great, but distractions can certainly screw with you mood and make it harder for a film to cast its spell on you. My experience going to see Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a good example. Now, normally I can blame bad movie going experiences on inconsiderate audiences, but that wasn’t really the case this time. There was a snafu at the theater which resulted in a light being left on towards the front which created a bit of a disturbance on the lower righthand side of the screen, but most of my distractions were all in my head. I’d been embroiled in a job hunt in the weeks leading up to this screening, and that was in my head as I watched the film… also, on the way to the theater this song called “Prayer in C” by Lilly Wood was playing on the radio and god dammit, that groove got stuck in my head. I bring all this up because there has to be some explanation for why this film, which I intellectually thing is awesome, never was never quite able to bowl me over with its awesomeness.
Set in a small town in modern day Russia, Leviathan follows a man named Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) who is fighting a legal battle with the town’s corrupt Mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who wants to seize Kolya’s land through eminent domain in order to build himself a “palace.” To help fight this Kolya invites an old army friend named Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a skilled Moscow attorney, to come and represent him. Dmitri has some early successes, but it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be like one of those Hollywood movies where people are people are rewarded for standing up to the system. Instead the film slowly turns into a sort of downward spiral where Kolya is punished over and over again both by the system and by his own flaws.
The story of Leviathan has been called Job-like, which is true insofar as a series of unfortunate events befall someone, but there are some key differences. Most importantly, the film’s Job figure is not a righteous man arbitrarily chosen to endure difficult acts of faith. Rather, he’s a stubborn guy who did sort of provoke the force that would come to ruin his life. That force is not god of course; it’s the town’s corrupt mayor. The mayor is an interesting character because he doesn’t come across like some kind of Frank Underwood mastermind so much as a drunken fool who’s weaseled his way into a certain amount of power and has been emboldened to act ruthlessly by a number of yes-men he’s surrounded himself with. Beyond the more universal despair at the film’s center, the film could also be read as a sort of comment on Russian society as a whole. I’m not going to pretend I know enough about Russia to spot the specifics, but it’s pretty clear to me that the film is commenting on some very specific issues with that country’s crony-politics and heartless bureaucracies.
Leviathan was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a filmmaker whose previous films all seemed exceptionally well made but which never quite had the drive to really stand out as complete triumphs. The same could also be said of Leviathan I suppose, but it seems a bit more substantial just the same. His earlier films had very minimalist stories, they were slices of life that had a certain understated power but never quite had a full arc. This film is a bit talkier than those films were, has a slightly more involved story, and a bit more of a political edge. Actually, it might be more accurate to call it a subversive edge than a political edge, there’s no call to action at the heart of this, just a lot of despair and a lot of sadness.
When Leviathan debuted a the Cannes Film Festival it made a pretty big splash. The jury only ended up giving it the Best Screenplay award, but a lot of people thought it was a legit contender for the Palm d’Or that eventually ended up going to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep. Having seen both movies, I do think the jury made the right choice but I can definitely see why this movie gave the eventual winner a run for its money. And yet, I still didn’t quite love this movie. I don’t know, maybe it was just all the distractions I outlined in the first paragraph, maybe it was just fatigue from having seen a half dozen award season movies in something like three weeks, I don’t know, but something was just “off” about this movie going experience. I still admired the hell out of the movie just the same. It’s a really strong effort if you’re in the right mood for it, but as I’ve learned, that mood needs to be pretty damn stable because if you’re out of it this can be a tough film to love.
***1/2 out of Four