Leviathan is the latest film from quietly celebrated filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev. The film has swept across the globe, becoming a hit with critics and film fans alike and winning a stack of awards along the way. It has also become a controversial piece of cinema in its homeland of Russia, where the film’s ultra-critical view of the Government has led to a frosty reception and release issues. Ahead of its date with Oscar destiny, I decide to take a trip into the cold Russian climate.
With a basis on a pair of biblical tales, Leviathan follows Kolia has he navigates the murky politics of his local town in an attempt to save his home. The Mayor has plans for the beautiful piece of land Kolia owns, and now, at the end of the legal process, Kolia finds that he has lost his land and has to give it up. As a result of this event, the film follows the lives of Kolia’s family, the inhabitants of the town, the Mayor and his associates as they go down towards a new and undetermined path.
I don’t pertain to be the most intelligent film-goer, but I do occasionally like being stimulated whilst watching a film. If I’m paying to see a 150 minute Russian film, one that is well-reviewed, has political subtext and a biblical basis, I expect to be engaged mentally and I want something to continually sift through and find meaning in. Leviathan is so determined in its messaging that it reverts to hand-holding in an effort to make the audience understand.
And that is the key problem with Leviathan. Without trying to insult those that loved it, the film assumes the audience is stupid – whether to make it more broadly appealing or because it is simply a poor script – the film is determined to beat you over the head time and time again. Zvyiagintsev’s direction even halts the film’s momentum and rhythm through key phases to ensure you understand what it is trying to say. The direction, which stages some breathtaking shots and crafts moments of glass-cutting tension, is continually hamstrung by a script that won’t let the story play out naturally on screen.
What is quite depressing about Leviathan is that the film has moments of absolute brilliance, and in the second half, where political subtext takes a backseat, the film manages to go through some fascinating motions and surprises that almost make everything seem worth it. But then it ruins everything with perhaps the worst, most awful, unmistakably bad final scene in the history of film (without being hyperbolic). Because if 150 minutes of being beaten over the head isn’t enough, it is going to sledgehammer you in the face with MEANING right at the end, just to ensure you leave the cinema in the right frame of mind.
I’m not surprised Leviathan is packing cinemas with geriatrics and winning awards from Hollywood critics. If not for the Russian dialect, I would have thought I was watching the kind of middling, meandering politicised drama that Stephen Gaghan usually writes. The beautiful moments that escape from the murkiness are some of the best of 2014, without a doubt, but they are let down by everything else. Sorry folks, I think Leviathan is a bit of a dud.