Academy Award 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Contender Review: "Leviathan" (Russia)
Patience Will Reward Any Viewer of "Leviathan" - A Crime Saga Worth Telling and Very Well Executed
"Leviathan" is not a crime film done in the flashy manner of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola or even Billy Wilder. In fact, its subtle, hard-boiled tones and gradual but pressing slow-building tension make it reminiscent of David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" and, to a greater degree, J.C Chandor's 2014 80's set Oscar entry "A Most Violent Year." This is not to deride the film but to praise it and, if you are patient, the rewards are plentiful.
The film, made and produced entirely in Russia, is a particular brand of a crime film. It is, in many parts, hilarious with the banter between characters who also happen to be family members. The dialogue - effortless and natural - is by turns witty and charismatic and fun. Just like how you'd envision ethnic family gatherings to be. But, when the stakes get raised and the film morphs into a tense crime drama - the tonal shifts come at you quietly and the film makes sure to keep all the threads going as each character perfectly services and advances the overarching plot. Long story short, the movie is brilliant and is a totally different animal when compared to anything coming out of the US genre-wise.
The most startling thing about the film is the lack of sheer brutality, particularly onscreen. Any deaths that do occur are justified through a character's clear intent and happen off-camera. Even though this is the case, the killings still have a special impact because they are few and far between. One of my favorite characters is the Mayor who initially becomes an unwitting pawn in the framework of the family crime story. He goes from affable imbecile to a force to be reckoned with. His 2nd and 3rd act ways of being a threat resound loud and clear. Strangely, you feel for him because he is so totally out to lunch and yet decides to scheme and enact revenge by the time the curtain is down.
The rest of the cast is also exceptionally appealing. In American crime films, women are sorely neglected and mishandled and are normally used either as femme fatales (in noirs) or just unwitting accessories to their husbands'/boyfriends' criminal dealings. Such is not the case here. The women in this film actually behave more like "one of the boys" and at many times become indistinguishable from their Y-Chromosome counterparts. It is a breath of fresh air to see such vibrant personality resonating from them. And by personality I don't mean another lewd performance in the vein of the criminally overexposed Melissa McCarthy. These are women who are forced to weather the storm and gravity of their husband's turmoil but they do so through coping.
The direction by Andrey Zvyagintsev with beautiful and spacious cinematography by Mikhail Krichman really capture the Russian coastal town landscape exceedingly well. As lives are crushed and shortened in the blink of an eye, the duo's combined assault on the senses leaves the viewer satisfied by the haunting cool hues of greys and blues. Zvyagintsev's framing is by turns naturalistic and really ambitious and as the action revs up, so does his direction as he captures the suspenseful moments in a timely way that never drags. The real mastery of "Leviathan" is that it manages to be a pitch black social commentary, a politically charged tale of misplaced judgment and flawed morality and a smartly made thriller. The fact that it encompasses each of these genres so well and never teeters on the edge of excess will make this film stand the test of time.