How is it that, in the real world, the bad guys tend to win and things just keep getting worse? Leviathan dramatizes how, through the ordering forces of religion, tortuous bureaucracy, law, and, of course, vodka, good people keep getting squelched, while the state carries on protecting the interests of the corrupt.
Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov), not upper class but not really a grizzled peasant either, is a decent enough citizen, living in a large but rundown house on a good chunk of land in a modest fishing town in northern Russia. Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev (Elena) relishes showing how otherworldly this town by the Barents Sea is, as if to suggest that its vistas are more spiritual nourishment than any ancient religion can provide. But, since this is Russia, it’s not simply an exotic, striking beauty. There’s a desolate, haunted aspect mixed in with all the grandeur.
Kolia’s ancestors built the house, and it’s important to him to keep it in his family. Kolia loves his beautiful but aloof wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his sullen teenage son, and he works hard in his auto repair shop. A decent family man at heart, Kolia smokes cigarettes during breakfast, forcefully smacks his son for acting up, flies off the handle at minor things, and swills Vodka basically all day. When the mood hits, sex has to happen immediately, right there, no matter where he is or who may be watching.
A pleasant afternoon outdoors with friends involves pounding vodka and firing off rifles and AK47s while the women shove big wads of raw meat onto metal rods to be cooked for sustenance after the men tire of drinking and shooting. This commonplace life is not portrayed sentimentally or disparagingly. There’s no sense of ironic American detachment to their lives and none of the narcissistic ambition of the bureaucrats. Just good, though flawed, people.
The corrupt mayor, Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov), however, despises Kolia and enjoys exercising his power over those who can’t fight back. He has figured out how to get the rights to Kolia’s property, and he plans to knock the house down. Kolia’s old army friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) has become a successful Moscow lawyer, and he travels out and stays with Kolia to offer legal assistance in resisting Vadim’s schemes. Dmitri looks up to Kolia and respects him a great deal, and does all he can to save his humble friend’s property.
There is plenty of narrative, and it unwinds in a way that will keep you wanting to know what happens next, but this is no David Fincher-esque potboiler. The controlled, austere compositions echo Fincher, and many other directors, but are held together by a more substantive philosophical vision. The plot serves the themes and messages as a whole seamlessly, keeping the narrative focused around a singular vision. There is no titillation and little suspense, just a total experience of what it feels and looks like to be slowly but surely ground down under the heel of authority.
Actress Elena Lyadova looks like a cross between Emmy Rossum and Rosamund Pike, but stripped of all cushiony artifice. Lilya’s a beautiful woman worked to the bone in a fish-gutting factory. She’s a husk, but somehow the more beautiful for it. Her beauty and demeanor mirror the sea shore in their irresistible severity. This isn’t Charlize Theron in Monster stunt slumming. She has a look that no American actress could replicate.
Alexey Serebryakov takes the short-tempered, somewhat outwardly repellent Kolia and reveals, as the film progresses, that he has the biggest heart of all, finding depths of forgiveness that no one else has. Serebryakov delivers a memorable portrait of vulnerability. Anna Ukolova provides another memorable turn as Lilya’s best friend, Angela. Her impossibly booming voice and blunt demeanor offer some much-needed comic relief.
Profoundly pessimistic, Leviathan reveals how, even dressed up in the tortuous finery of modern bureaucracy, and with the guiding hand of Christian love, the neo-oligarchical state chews up good men like Kolia as a matter of course. He’s as helpless against its power as those in the Old Testament were against the wrath of God.