Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a happy-go-lucky Russian film about how no matter the obstacles you find yourself up against, life always sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it, so why bother? Er, ditch the happy-go-lucky part. Leviathan is one of the bleakest films I’ve seen in a while, and I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which left me feeling bleak about the future of humanity, anyway). It’s brilliantly done, but you might want to clear the rest of your evening after seeing it for sitting on your sofa and staring into the abyss.
The movie starts with mechanic and family man Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov) engaged in a legal battle with Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the corrupt mayor of his small Russian coastal town, who’s determined to tear down his house. In Nikolay’s corner is his lawyer friend Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who hails from Moscow; his son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and Roma’s stepmother Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who’s something of an outsider in her own family; and an assortment colorful friends, all of whom the somewhat egotistical Nikolay appears to look down on a bit.
Nikolay’s not a bad person—he loves his wife and his son, and even though he’s his town’s only real well-off person (aside from the mayor), he’s hardly chomping on that silver spoon. He’s a mechanic, for Chrissakes. Still, as the movie goes on, Nikolay reveals himself as being less and less like the “traditional” hero in a David vs Goliath story. His continuing struggles bring out the worst in him, as he becomes more and more unpleasant to his family and unconcerned with anything that’s not him getting one over on Vadim.
Meanwhile, Vadim starts to realize that, with a fancy Moscow lawyer in his corner, Nikolay might actually get one over on the corrupt legal and political system that Vadim represents. And let’s throw some religion in there, too—Vadim’s confidant is a burly, mobster-looking Greek Orthodox priest who constantly reassures Vadim that he can stop freaking out already, because God has it under control, and the right people will come out on top. Or, well, a rotten government has it under control, and the wrong people will come out on top. A portrait of Putin conspicuously hangs above Vadim’s desk, staring at the audience during scenes of the mayor abusing his power and getting away with it.
That makes up about the first half of the movie—Vadim’s an asshole. Nikolay tries to get one over on the system, but everything’s working against him. Things for Nikolay are looking worse and worse. Then, about halfway through, the movie takes a turn. Vadim exits the picture almost entirely, and the movie refocuses from the legal conflict to, basically, Nikolay’s life going to hell. It’s almost as if the priest was right, and God is reaching his hand down to have Vadim’s back at Nikolay’s expense.
See where the bleakness I mentioned comes in?
Still, for all that nobody ever really catches a break in Leviathan—none of the good people, anyway—it avoids being misery porn (“Look at these people feeling awful and feel awful yourselves, mwahaha! You’ve paid for your ticket already! You can’t leave!”), which I for one appreciated. Leviathan has more to say than “life sucks and then you die.” It’s humanistic, with a real love of its characters and what makes them strong, as opposed to a love of putting them through the wringer. Given that attitude, it makes sense that it’s a loose retelling (as per Zvyagintsev) of the Book of Job, in which God piles suffering on a righteous man to prove a point about faith to Satan. Leviathan is also a critique of contemporary Russia, though I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that there’s a lot of nuance American audiences (myself included) aren’t going to get.
Leviathan is a rich, almost literary, film, expertly directed and housing a lot to unpack in its two hour and twenty minute runtime. At times it may leave you wanting to hit the armrest of your chair or write a screed on how awful the world is, but it’s worth it.