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Leviathan - Movie Review

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Leviathan - Movie Review


5 stars

Those Russians. So many contributions to the world: the space race; vodka; vowel-deprived surnames; hockey players; vodka; the AK-47; hot tennis players; communism; vodka. And let’s not forget to add filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev whose latest film, the dour Russian drama Leviathan, is a heartbreaking, vodka-soaked portrait of political corruption in modern-day Russia. We know it’s modern day by the cell phones and late model cars, but the subject matter and themes would feel welcome in the age of Peter the Great.

The biblical sea monster of the film’s title is a wonderful reference to any number of the film’s subjects and hints at the creative genius of Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin. Their leviathan may be the giant decaying whale carcasses that populate the coastal sands of their Russian village setting. Or it may be the local Orthodox priest who quotes from the Old Testament book of Job. Perhaps it’s the vastness of the surrounding Barents Sea landscape that threatens to swallow up the inhabitants of this remote spot? I like to think of it as a reference to the town’s Provincial Mayor, and principle antagonist Vadim (Ramon Madyanov), a portly, drunken behemoth of a man who is the personification of Russian corruption and abuse of authority.

Vadim’s current victim is Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) a hard working local auto mechanic who lives with his dainty wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and son from a previous marriage in the home Kolya built with is own hands. To Vadim, Kolya's land represents the perfect piece of seaside real estate for future development, but to Kolya, it’s his ancestral home. It represents freedom – man’s sole true possession.

As the film opens we see Kolya in court facing the fate of his long-gestating case against eminent domain. In a humorously extended scene, the court’s clerk rattles off the appeal denials in an almost Kafka-esque caricature of the Russian judicial system. Kolya is left with no where to turn. But he has an ace up his sleeve in the form of former war buddy Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) who is now a high-powered Moscow attorney with knowledge of how to handle such matters. But getting an injunction against the court’s ruling – and the subsequent order to destroy Kolya’s house – goes nowhere… until Dmitriy fights fire with fire by presenting a folder detailing Mayor Vadim’s questionable transgressions. Vadim isn’t going to go down without a fight of his own, however.

Though very Hollywood in its setup, Zvyagintsev’s version will go nowhere near such a predictable path. After all, this is a Russian film with classic Russian literary traits and is from Zvyagintsev, whose earlier, The Return displayed similar fatalistic tendencies. Leviathan is a bleak, dreary Russian epic that, while classic in its characteristics, displays a fresh modernity that fits in nicely with the template of any of today’s modern gangster tales.

Zvyagintsev has an obvious fascination and compassion for his characters whom he holds at arm’s length for thorough examination. They swim in vodka, emptying bottles at a time. And don’t think Americans have cornered the market on the fascination with firearms. There’s a second act scene that would be devastatingly tragic were it not so funny. During a picnic, the main characters down several bottles of vodka before taking target practice with handguns, rifles and even fully automatic AK-47s. Their targets? Framed portraits of former Soviet leaders, minus Boris Yeltsin - he’s too recent, they say.

Though set in Russia, the story is actually inspired by real events that took place in the United States. But corruption, abuse, and rampant bureaucracy know no borders. Zvyagintsev’s unique artistic vision – while never abandoning his Russian sensibilities – sets his film apart and makes it worthy of its recent Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Leviathan a beautiful film, with stunning images of Russia’s Kola Peninsula starring in nearly every scene, but with a misery index of eleven it’s a tough film to get through, especially during its third act which yields a bit too much of its storytelling efficiency to classic Russian literary themes.

Leviathan - Movie Review

MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality/graphic nudity.
140 mins
: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Andrey Zvyagintsev; Oleg Negin
Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov
: Foreign | Drama
Memorable Movie Quote: "All power comes from God. As long as it suits Him, fear not."
Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site:
Release Date:
February 6, 2015 (limited)
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
No details available.
Synopsis: In a Russian coastal town, Nikolai is forced to fight the corrupt mayor when he is told that his house will be demolished. He recruits a lawyer friend to help, but the man's arrival brings further misfortune for Nikolai and his family..

No details available.

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