Leviathan is chilling. It’s many things, of course — it’s beautiful, stunningly shot by director Andrey Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman; it’s grand and sweeping, ceilingless in theme and character; it’s relevant, despite criticism by the Russian government regarding an “unpatriotic” message. But most of all Leviathan is hauntingly realistic, defiant of many of the plot developments one might expect from such a film. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars (and arguably the frontrunner alongside Ida), Leviathan is also Russia’s first appearance at the Academy Awards in nearly a decade.
The plot stems from a land dispute between a corrupt town mayor and a family living by the seashore. After having been harassed by the mayor’s men, the short-fused patriarch Kolia brings in his friend Dmitri, now a lawyer in Moscow, to help fight the takeover. Dmitri digs up some dirt on the mayor that he thinks he can use — but in this tiny Northern town it seems everyone is dirty. Kolia’s life begins to unravel as he watches helplessly, and before long it’s not just his home that lies in jeopardy but his job, his wife, his son, his freedom.
There have been a few films of late either consciously or unconsciously structured around the Book of Job, the most recent being A Most Violent Year and the most straightforward (and still best) being the Coens’ A Serious Man back in 2009. Leviathan takes a great many cues from that biblical tale as well, casting Kolia in the central role and forcing him to grasp at his earthly possessions as they slide away. He even explicitly hears about Job from a local priest, glumly trying to connect the dots in between sips of vodka.
But again, the stark tone of Leviathan is a thing to marvel. A Serious Man is probably the other end of the spectrum in Job-narratives, more of a lighthearted romp than an actual tragedy. Leviathan is a tragedy, through and through, and it’s a really dark tragedy to boot. We spend a lot of time in the kitchen area of the home in question, which plays stage to meals, laughs, arguments, shoving matches, late-night weeping, late-night drunkenness, and a kaleidoscope of other emotions from Kolia and his family. It’s a subtle but effective accomplishment from Zvyagintsev and Krichman, making this room such a focal point. A viewer likely wouldn’t realize their own familiarity with the kitchen, might not realize that they’ve somehow become attached to that house as if they’ve lived there as long as Kolia has — that is until the kitchen, along with the rest of the house, is ripped down into nothing by a crew of construction workers.
That’s one of the final things we see in Leviathan, but it’s the last vestige of Kolia’s life after the back half of the film tears everything else from him. Alexei Serebriakov is wonderful as Kolia, unable to control his anger at the mere thought of the mayor Vadim and likewise unable to control his own fate. The rest of the cast is phenomenal as well, and the film is written in such a way that even minor characters get their time to shine before the film concludes. That must be a deliberate approach from Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin: everyone shines at least a little, even the alcoholic traffic cop that lives nearby, but at the end of Leviathan nothing shines. The waves crash on the shore, as they always have and always will, and the hulk of Kolia’s home now lies not far from the hulk of a long-dead whale washed in by those waves.
Few Job-narratives are as sickeningly realistic as this. Interestingly, I now have to clarify what I mean by realistic in the wake of a loud and angry resistance to Leviathan from Russian government and conservative groups (The New Yorker ran a piece about this today), who would posit that Leviathan is categorically unrealistic. So, no: I don’t mean realistic in the sense of this is what Russia must be like, and how awful. Zvyagintsev has defended the film by stating that Leviathan could be set anywhere, and that any social commentary specific to Russia is what a viewer might project onto it; not only is this more defense than should be needed, but it’s also part of what makes the movie so haunting in the first place. It’d be fatal to assume this couldn’t happen right here, right now, just as Kolia seems to believe in this kind of compounded horror happening to anyone but himself.
Leviathan is realistic, then, in narrative terms — we’ll leave the political stuff for more interested minds (Aaron Sorkin, get on it!). Ironically, the least realistic part is probably that scene where the local priest talks with Kolia about the Book of Job (“You’re him! Get it?”); aside from that, Leviathan is a dark and twisted tale set in a remote part of the world that seems disturbingly familiar.