With “Leviathan,” Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev stages a marriage of convenience between protest art and family melodrama. Its first half expresses a blunt anger about Russian politicians’ abuse of power, as well as their hypocrisy in embracing an Orthodox Church to whose values they merely pay lip service. In its second half, the film shows how the flaws of human nature make it so hard to fight effectively against the injustices it depicts.
The two portions of the film, however, never really come together, even if its opening and closing shots of demolished boats and animal carcasses in and alongside water rhyme with each other. It piles on the bleakness to numbing effect.
“Leviathan” takes place near the Barents Sea in Northern Russia. Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) operates an auto repair shop and lives with his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his son Roma (Serguei Pokhodaev), born to a previous wife. When the town’s mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) attempts to seize his property, including his land, house, and business, Kolya brings in a lawyer from Moscow, but that only winds up creating problems. He rejects the mayor’s monetary offers, which only infuriates the mayor more.
Meanwhile, while on a picnic, Kolya faces disaster in his personal life, as well.
Russians seem to have taken over from Arabs as the villains du jour in Hollywood. As far as I know, there’s no Russian-American Anti-Defamation League to complain about this, and filmmakers can justify their cartoonish depictions of Russian Mafioso by pointing to Putin. No one is going to come away from “Leviathan” thinking that Zvyagintsev likes Putin much. Never cited directly in dialogue, his portrait pointedly hangs above Vadim’s office like a malign charm. He just misses making it into a target gallery of Russian dictators.
If there are real villains in “Leviathan,” there are no simple heroes. Its characters’ tendency to reach for the vodka bottle is their most stereotypically Russian attribute. (One is surprised when Kolya gets angry at his teenage son for drinking beer!) When tragedy strikes, Kolya’s deepest urge is to drink even more vodka than usual.
Apart from the beginning and ending, “Leviathan” doesn’t fetishize the beauty of the Russian landscape, although it does show some lovely shots of the sea and countryside. Instead, Zvyagintsev shows off his directorial chops mostly through well-blocked, symmetrical images of people sitting down. No Wes Anderson diorama, these shots are well-composed enough that they call attention to themselves without being overtly stylized.
The grim tone of “Leviathan,” particularly in its second half, seems archetypally Russian. Its narrative does not. In fact, its story of struggle between a relatively poor landowner and a powerful man who wants to steal his land could come from an American Western. Joseph H. Lewis’ 1958 “Terror in a Texas Town,” which played Anthology Film Archives in a tribute to blacklisted screenwriters a few weeks ago, has a very similar premise. “Leviathan” also resonates outside Russia in contemporary settings. I can picture the story taking place between Israeli settlers and Palestinians on the West Bank today.
Part of the problem with “Leviathan” is that it seems simultaneously indirect and heavy-handed. Key events take place off-screen or are hinted at through sound design. It seems clear that heavy drinking, adultery, and machine guns don’t mix, but before we learn exactly what has happened the film cuts to a scene between Vadim and a priest.
The second half of the film thrusts Kolya into a situation well beyond his capability to handle, and the political angle seems to be replaced by a spiritual framing. The priest compares Kolya to Job, but the film never resolves the contradictions between the film’s contradictory tones.
In the end, “Leviathan” returns to Vadim and the priest, who gives a sincere if narrow-minded conservative sermon about the evils of Pussy Riot, albeit not mentioning them by name, and the one true way of the Orthodox Church. For his part, Vadim is willing to ruin a man’s life to take his land. Amidst all this hypocrisy, the film’s solace lies in natural elements of earth and water, which don’t seem nearly enough. “Leviathan” would have benefited from sustaining its anger rather than tumbling into depression.
LEVIATHAN | Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev | Sony Pictures Classics | In Russian with English subtitles | Opens Dec. 25 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org | Lincoln Plaza, 1886 Broadway at 63rd St. | lincolnplaza.com