Want to experience a long and slow yet brutal kick in the ass? Have any desire to see a piece of art that is so sure-handed in its vision and ambition as to make the final result unassailable in its veracity? You want to remember why some people make movies in the first place? Then time for you to check out this new classic of Russian cinema, “Leviathan,” a film that is simultaneously enormous and intimate, and which also acts as a scathing indictment of life in Russia as well as personal relationships that can easily fall apart.
Kolya is a mechanic living in a house right off the river in a small rural Russian town with his rebellious teenage son Roma and his new wife Lilya, and everything would be okay if it wasn’t for the town’s mayor Vadim and the actions he has taken to seize the land on which Kolya’s house sits. When the movie starts, Kolya has already been fighting the local government for awhile, trying to get them first to stop the land seizure and then finally just trying to get fair compensation for the land instead of the paltry sum the government has decided is reasonable. The movie actually starts with Kolya picking up his old Army buddy Dmitri, who is now a hot shot lawyer in Moscow, and Kolya gets to work in trying to get Vadim to either a) leave the house to Kolya or b) get the right amount of money for Kolya and his family.
“Leviathan” unfolds slowly yet surely. The scenes play out without any rushing, with the story revealing itself scene by scene, moving forward in total linear fashion without any flashbacks or asides, and this makes the storytelling a little more exciting, as we learn things over time that keeps widening the scope of the story and deepening the drama within. This movie is very much about a man going head to head against an obviously corrupt legal system, but as that story moves along, we also see this man having to deal with his family problems, which turns out to be almost as big as anything else. His son hates his new wife and he can’t convince his son to act any differently, and when Dmitri comes to town, this leads to more problems with Kolya and his wife, massive problems to say the least.
“Leviathan” actually has a number of things on its mind, and it presents these things without really condoning or condemning, instead just presenting these things as they are and letting us parse out what he really think about. There is a strong emphasis on the Orthodox church and its role in Russian society, as Vadim regularly visits with the local priest for guidance, obviously worried about the sanctity of his own soul, all the way conducting ruthless business behind the scenes. He needs his priest friend to tell him he is a good person because he knows deep down inside he is a fat piece of shit. Maybe this is why he gets so drunk he goes cross eyed.
But then again most characters in this movie at one point or another gets blindingly drunk on vodka, whether they are mourning, celebrating, angry, happy, it does not matter, bottles of vodka regularly get emptied and these folks just stumble around drunk as skunks. Going target shooting? Bring the vodka. Taking a long drive? Let’s get drunk first. Need to get excited? Vodka. Need to calm down? Vodka. Kolya probably gets drunk more than anyone else in this movie, to the point where his shitbag son even asks him to drink less, to which Kolya gives the old “I’ll quit tomorrow” response. Thank goodness for tomorrow, eh? If it wasn’t for tomorrow, no one would ever quit anything.
The vodka intake in this movie is almost to the point of parody, but considering it is made by a Russian, and not from some outsider perspective, maybe this really is the way it is over there. Hell, drinking has become so synonymous with Russia that the government recently took steps to try to curb alcohol consumption in their country. Obviously this portrayal of Russians has bothered some folks, including the grand dictator and imperial ruler of Russian Vlad the Impaler Putin. Then again, this can’t be a shock, because the asshole mayor Vadim at one point sits in front of a portrait of Putin, his corruption reflecting that of the government officials above him, and at another point Kolya and his friends prepare to take target practice with a series of portraits of past Russian leaders (interestingly, while we clearly see portraits of Lenin, Stalin and Gorbachev, the portrait of Putin is upside down in this scene so we only see his chin. Perhaps the filmmakers knew their limits better than most people think).
The most surprising part of this movie is how the story progresses and how deep it ends up going down the rabbit hole. It seems like at first that this is just going to be a “fight against city hall” kind of story about a fella trying to protect his home and family from eminent domain, but then the story grows, in a very sneaky fashion, so that it ends up containing other elements and other little tangents that all end up tying back together in the end in a pretty amazing way. Despite the length of the movie and the slow pace of the scenes, there is no fat on this movie. Everything has a purpose, every character has a reason for being included, and when it is all said and done, it results in a very layered portrayal of this family and his struggles against the government as well as his own family and friends and even himself.
“Leviathan” is a great movie, a very distinct and individual film, made by people who knew exactly the kind of tale they wanted to tell, and by the time it was all over, the final series of images really brought home the pain and desperation and desolation felt by the folks who feel so powerless against such corrupt stewards and overseers.