Everything’s at risk of drowning in Leviathan, the new film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, and that includes the sea creatures. For its protagonist, poor, alcoholic Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), vodka is the rip tide. Fighting against a sleazy mayor with designs on his family’s home in northern Russia, Leviathan follows the hot-tempered Kolya as his life in a rural fishing community comes to be battered from every angle.
Bleak as any film loosely based on the Book of Job might be, it’s the warmth and humor of Leviathan that often stand out. A reflexive, sweetly “I love you” that balms a telephone shouting match between a husband and wife captures in micro the contradictory flavors of Leviathan’s emotional palette. It creates a richly detailed world of crushing economic disparity and corruption, while making few attempts to present its characters as likeable. A whole ecosystem is born out of watching these characters simply exist within their element. Without ever having to grandstand, Zvyaginstev effectively demonstrates the danger removal from such a community poses its inhabitants. They simply are who they are, and it’s too late to try evolving into anyone else.
With its earthy acting and precision framing, the film maintains bracing intimacy from scene to scene. At times, the open-ended approach Zvyagintsev takes can slow the pace down to a glacial crawl, only later to have more important details rushed through, or left hanging by the end. That slight dissatisfaction is more a feature than a bug, though, and it’s what allows Leviathan to have such scope beyond the average confines of a social drama. The powerful connections between these people and this land make Leviathan a small town tale of epic proportions.