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Leviathan (2014)
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by Jay Seaver

"One whale of a movie."
5 stars

What is it that makes a movie jump from a solid drama with an interesting premise to borderline-great, the sort of film that doesn't just get chosen as its country's Oscar submission, but makes the final cut? Obviously, if there were an easy universal answer, everyone would do it; for "Leviathan", it seems to be tying an exquisite knot: Able to tighten and come undone with the minimum amount of the right kind of pressure.

It starts with Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a handyman and mechanic in the north of Russia whose family home may be humble, but it is located on a very desirable patch of land. Desirable enough that the city has made moves to legally seize it to build a communications center. It's difficult to fight City Hall anywhere, but an old buddy from the Army, Dmitriy "Dima" Seleznyov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) is a high-powered lawyer from Moscow, and comes to argue his case - or, failing that, apply some leverage to the Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the religious but highly corrupt mayor. It will take some days, during which time Dima can see the tension between Kolya, second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and son Roman (Sergey Pokohdaev).

Director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev begins the film as Kolya's chances at an official remedy are drawing to a close; it's barely ten minutes before the court reads out how Kolya will take what the city says his land is worth because his claims that he deserves more are baseless. It's a numbing declaration - few other languages can truly communicate the system grinding a man into paste like Russian spoken in a monotone - that both establishes an air of fatalism and signals the real plot is about to begin. It's time to start trying to make the rampant corruption work in this family's favor. Everybody, from Vadim down to Roman, is breaking the rules in some way, with the common thread being that seizing advantage also creates leverage that can be used against that person, depending upon how ruthless his or her enemies are.

Kolya is the least ruthless of the group, although Aleksey Serebryakov does not portray him as weak. Kolya is prepared to fight but not well-equipped for it, his pride both easily wounded and valuable of being mended. Serebryakov gives audiences a sense of the man early on, even if it is the other characters taking a more active part at first, so that his more explosive moments layer on don't come out of nowhere, but feel exactly as they should. He makes an interesting contrast to Elena Lyadova and her Lilya - Kolya's genial scruffiness (increased by vodka on a fairly regular basis) seems to need her practicality wrapped in what elegance a small town like theirs can afford in order to function, and Lyadova has a way of seeming to contemplate Lilya's lot in life in a way that suggests disappointment without being entirely dismissive. She doesn't quite fit in a rural fish-packing plant, but she's just scrupulous enough that she's never broken the rules necessary to avoid it.

On the other side, there's Vladimir Vdovichenkov, playing Dima nearly as easy to like as Kolya, but with a bit of the shark to him, not quite eager to get into the muck but clearly with no fear of it. He's got a natural way of being patronizing without being obviously so. Roman Madyanov is the one that makes perhaps the greatest impression as Vadim, though: Baby-faced and not obviously sharp of feature, prone to coming across as a truly sloppy drunk (vodka makes him both petulant and bold), he's still got an edge of arrogance to how he speaks which does a nice job of smoothing over the forms with which he holds on to both his corruption and his cloak of righteousness. He's a monster, but it comes as much from how he's mastered intimidation to the point where he no longer had to practice it openly that often.

Zvyagintsev is once again working with Elena co-writer Oleg Negin, and though they have made a fairly long movie, it's one that unfolds in more compelling fashion; despite the noteworthy events being spaced out and as often as not occurring off-screen, there's a good sense of forward motion that doesn't require on moments declaring their importance for all to see. The languid pace sometimes does stretch things out a bit too far, and at times it feels like Zvyagintsev and Negin are trying to balance too much on their title - having the Biblical reference spelled out is a bit on the nose, but okay, while having Roman head for the skeleton of a beached whale when he needs some time alone is a beautiful visual image that doesn't quite say as much as it should. Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman are also perhaps just the slightest touch too fond of the slow zoom/camera movement.

The end of the movie is kind of fascinating, though, a denouement that is extended enough to play as something more than just a punchline, slugging the audience like a weighed boxing glove. It plays into Kolya's repeated worries about Vadim's plans for his land and what often seems to be played as an Interestingly paradoxical character quirk, and at a certain level it comes across as mere irony. A closer read, though, suggests that Zvyagintsev is showing how such leviathans come to be and persist, by apparently eschewing personal gain but in truth investing in something that tightens the grip on one's constituency even as it bolsters one's own reputation.

Zvyagintsev doesn't underline that too strongly; it wouldn't match the rest of the film's tone and might come across as attacking the institution more than the hypocrisy. That last bit is what elevates this movie to that next tier, although it was close to the line even before.

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originally posted: 03/18/15 11:28:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2014 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2014 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

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