This is a whale of a movie—grotesque and a little bloated but impossible to ignore. Its power and horrors sneak up on you. This contemporary Russian tale, set on the shores of the Barents Sea, is about the unholy powers of the state and church bearing down on one man, Kolia (played brilliantly by Aleksey Serebryakov), and his family, after he dares to challenge an attempt by the local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), to take his home from him. The film’s title borrows from that of political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s greatest work and helps itself to his view that life would be “nasty, brutish and short” without good government and an organized society. Leviathan is a tragedy with a hint of black comedy that moves at its own pace and rhythm, and it lands a bruising punch on modern Russia.
“It’s up to you if he becomes a man or an ape,” says Kolia’s wife, in the kitchen of their small-town home as their unhappy stepson stomps around the house. You sense that Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev (Elena, The Return) is thinking the same thing in relation to an entire society and its leaders, and there’s a funny scene when a small group goes on a shooting-and-drinking trip and brings along framed photos of Russia’s leaders from Lenin to Yeltsin to fire at. “It’s too early for the current ones; we need more historical perspective,” quips someone, although Putin’s photo sits prominently on the wall of the mayor’s office.
Leviathan begins with Kolia’s friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) arriving by train to help with an impending court case against the mayor. A malevolent spirit has also made the trip with him from Moscow to this fading backwater, where rotting fishing boats sit within beautiful, harsh landscapes. Dmitriy tries to blackmail the mayor but swiftly regrets it. Here, even white knights come wearing dirty underwear, and soon, Dmitriy doesn’t seem like such a benign crusader. Even Kolia’s friendly neighbors come carrying daggers. As his life rapidly starts to unravel, Kolia hits the vodka even harder. There’s undoubtedly a suicidal drinking game to be played while watching this strange, bleak, sad movie.
Leviathan is sweeping, curious and bold, told in widescreen with a sense of the epic applied to everyday lives. If it inspires any doubts, it’s that some of the targets are a little obvious and it carries some weight of self-importance, leaving little to the imagination. Like Elena before it, this is a parable, but it’s a grander affair, unafraid to wander down some unusual paths with all the detail and density of a great novel. There’s none of the surreality of Zvyagintsev’s second film, The Banishment, but it shares some of its grandiloquence. In its final act, it lays the ideas on thick, but there’s no doubting this is a significant, powerful film.