The latest from modern Russian master Andrey Zvyagintsev is the story of a not quite ordinary family shifting in the sands of time under the weight of corruption. In a remote northern town, struggling mechanic Kolya (Aleksey Serabryakov) is about to have his home and hearth pulled out from under him by a bitter, corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Though Kolya thinks he has an ace in his deck with the evidence garnered by his old friend and now Moscow lawyer Dimitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), nothing is quite what it appears. As the seams holding his marriage to his younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) begin to unravel, he finds himself unable to comprehend the approaching storm. Beholding the world and all it consequences through a vodka-smeared gaze only exacerbates his downward spiral.
Zvyagintsev‘s ferociously bleak film has a soured, grey-tinted, autumnal beauty about it and for two-thirds of its length the film goes close to matching his two great works, The Return (2003) and Elena (2011) in their depth of commentary about Russian societal ills, especially the vast divide between the haves and have-nots. What Leviathan does lack however is a finely honed commentary and, in particular, the great economy of those masterpieces.
Though the acting is flawless, the film’s third act loses its shape and too often Zvyagintsev resolves potentially complex strands with simplified narrative turns. The traumatised reaction of son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) to a ferocious, impetuous coupling of his parents – a very, one-sided, heinous transgression – is one disappointing example of this loosening of the noose. Then there’s the expository dialogue that seeks, far too self-consciously, to flush metaphors out into the light with compromised conversation that dilutes the naturalism that Zvyagintsev works tirelessly to achieve. Kolya’s drunken run-in with a priest is a prime example of the third act’s minor shortcomings.
Leviathan (2014) is flawed but it has a withering impact in its best moments. It also strikes a powerful, gut-churning final note as the death knell tolls for some of the participants. A moral, ethical death is some instances, the director seems to be saying, just as flagrantly emphasises the decay of ambition and helplessness in the face of power that corrupts absolutely. And again there’s the wretched disparity to marvel at of Russian ideals of freedom with their counterparts in the real world. It’s grim and disturbing ultimately, these conclusions of Zvagintsev’s, but for the most part, it makes for compelling drama with a touch of bleak humour tossed into the mix making for brief but welcome relief.