Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the Oscar-nominated Leviathan is a dark, meditative odyssey into the perilous and unforgiving depths of humanity. Focusing its attention on Koyla (Alexeï Serebriakov), a hot-tempered handyman who lives in a small fishing town near the Barents Sea in Northern Russia, the film sees his livelihood tested. He owns an auto-repair shop that’s next to his house where he lives with his wife Lilya (Elena Liadova) and his delinquent son Roma (Sergueï Pokhodaev). Koyla is forced into a fight with the corrupt mayor when he is told his house will be demolished. Recruiting his old lawyer friend from Moscow, they look to be on a more even footed battle until his friend’s arrival brings even greater misfortune to his family.
Richly aligned with biblical text, the film takes on an omnipresent spiritual direction. I’m no theological expert by any means but the universal themes of good versus evil and corruption in powerful government positions shine through. Koyla is our protagonist who suffers from the follies of man. He drinks too much and allows himself to be consumed with his own rage far too often, but his wishes are simplistic. He wants to stay in a house he built, with a family he loves, in a town by the sea. The Mayor on the other hand is a foul, boorish man who is power hungry and has little consideration of those beneath him. To him they’re all worms waiting to be bulldozed over. His public persona is aggressive and his private persona is even more so. He is clearly an evil man who wishes to steal from others to build a greater image of success for himself. He drips with sweat, laps up vodka and drunkenly yells at those who stand in his way. He is a political satire cartoon come to life and made all the more fearsome when you realize that despite his cartoonish appearance, men like him are very much real.
Serebriakov’s Koyla is a devastating portrait of a man suffering losses one by one in a short period of time. Koyla, as I mentioned, isn’t a perfect person and there are moments where you wonder if the movie is playing out some form of retribution for his rage. But as the Mayor’s insipidness persists throughout the film we realize that Koyla never stood a chance. He’s an ordinary man trying to make due in a ruthless society whose sole focus resides in economic gain. His slow unraveling is unsettling to watch and Serebriakov delivers a fearless performance that doesn’t shy away from Koyla’s anger and instead embraces it as a motivating factor. His moments of bellowing rage are just as powerful as his scenes of complete stillness and introspection. He’s a flawed individual and all the more interesting because of it.
If anything I wish we’d spend a little more time seeing Lilya developed, particularly given that she’s in part a catalyst to some of the greater and more damning moments of the film. Her tryst seemed sudden if not understandable. The same could also be said for essentially all of the side characters who suffered due to the fact that Koyla was so wildly fascinating.
Everything is shot in a manner that show’s Koyla’s entire existence decaying. Koyla is living in a wasteland of his own making. Skeletons of sea beasts lie on the beach as Roma cries out of frustration. The teenagers in town go to a torn down, rubble filled church to drink themselves into oblivion. Lilya works on an assembly line where she guts fish and Koyla works as a mechanic who’s constantly putting broken things back together. He’s built himself a small piece of solitude in a world that’s rotting from the inside out. The sea often looks close to overcoming their small piece of earth and Zvyagintsev’s visualizations of death is a smart and useful tool for a movie already so possessed by misery.
Politically charged and at times viscerally moving, Leviathan is a powerful film and one that challenges viewers to think about the injustices in the world that evade our tunnel vision. Koyla has found himself on a land of destitution and despair where little is resolved and happiness is found through carrying a smoking gun. It’s a dying land with dying ways as they all question their faith they seek or the facts they know and try to simply end the day a better person than before. Characters, themes and visuals all come together beautifully in this film about dreams that may never be and lives unlived. This film is what you make of it and likely will be interpreted many different ways (and likely already has so go check it out since the film is worth discussing). However, the thought I kept drifting to throughout the film with the pervasive religious themes was the idea of life, death and the need to be good and strong in a world that’s harsh.
Leviathan is in select theaters now.