The first and only piece of advice needed on one’s way to the fishing pond is this: Bring your patience. Not surprisingly, the same could be said to a viewer of this slow-building but riveting experimental collage, shot off the coast of Massachusetts in the inky darkness of a late night’s trawling. Simply by knowing the film is about sea workers hauling in the day’s catch, you have a leg up on most people, who, experiencing the murky, near-wordless imagery, will think they’re watching outtakes from Ridley Scott’s Alien: all clinking chains, dripping liquids and fleshy floppings. Leviathan—the Job reference is apt—is about audience submergence. If you give yourself over to it, you’ll find your sea legs soon enough.
And what, eventually, is before us? That too is left open-ended: The filmmakers come from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (ah, college), where the goal seems to be a total capturing of an event with a minimum of explanation. Like the hypnotic swarm of seagulls constantly trailing the boat for scraps, we lunge for meaning. The effort is unusually pleasurable: Do these chain-smoking seamen like their work? Hard to say. They’re awfully efficient at chopping off fish heads with machetes. Is Leviathan an indictment of a brutal industry? That’s probably going a bit too far, but again, no one’s going to tell you otherwise. Without narration, the camera dives underwater (too often), yet emerges with pearls of suggestion.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf