Set amid the decaying hulks of long-abandoned boats and beached whales in a forsaken coastal town on the edge of the Barents Sea, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s mesmerizing, melancholy Leviathan is an aestheticized Russian tragedy. It’s about the battle of the individual versus the state — a battle that has already been lost before we even arrive. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a mechanic living with his wife and son in an ancient seaside home. He’s being evicted off his property by Vadim (Roman Madyanov), a corrupt, gangsterish mayor who looks like a bratwurst squeezed into a suit. But the headstrong, tough-minded Kolya isn’t going anywhere; his family has lived here for decades. So, to help him fight back against Vadim, Kolya enlists his handsome, big-city lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who brings with him a binder full of dirt on Vadim, courtesy of some very powerful and unseen figures in Moscow. We never see these powerful, behind-the-scenes players, nor do we ever see what the dirt on Vadim is. “Just because we can’t see them,” someone says, “doesn’t mean they’re not there.” But I kept thinking of that line from Aliens: “Whatever happened here, we missed it.”
These characters and this story seem like they’re part of the decay unleashed into the atmosphere by those rusting boats and rotting whales. Vadim’s young, beautiful wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who is having an affair with Dmitri, works in a local factory sorting out fish; this must be some sort of fishing town, but we never see any fishermen, any live catch. Everything is dead here. (Except for one brief, very telling glimpse of a live whale at sea late in the film – a moment that speaks volumes about what’s about to happen.) Vadim’s office is, as must be the case with most politicians’ offices in Russia, dominated by a framed, slightly faded portrait of Vladimir Putin, and Zvyagintsev makes sure to place Putin smack-dab in the middle of his compositions as Vadim conspires with his underlings to make Kolya’s life as miserable as possible. Later a group of men go shooting, and they have nothing to hunt, so they bring along portraits of old Soviet and Russian leaders. “Got anything more current?” someone asks. “It’s too soon for the recent ones. Not enough historical perspective,” is the reply.
Leviathan, whose title evokes both Thomas Hobbes’s classically grim work of political philosophy — that’s the one where he argues for the value of monarchy and that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” — as well as the biblical tale of Job, which the film overtly references, is filled with a desolate beauty. Zvyagintsev’s camera gives this alien landscape, with its lunar valleys and its gray bodies of water, a strange sensuousness. Does he see something holy in it? The characters’ dialogue occasionally veers towards spiritual matters. Dmitri, the lawyer, keeps saying he believes in facts whenever anyone asks him about God. When Lilya asks him the same question, with hope and love in her eyes, his cynical response seems to shatter her world.
Such spiritual-symbolic grace notes work well in the first half. They lend Zvyagintsev’s gripping story a resonance that justifies the film’s overall mood of otherworldly despair. But they take over the second half — and particularly the final act — in a way that undoes a lot of what we’ve seen. Zvyagintsev is an aesthete and a Big Thinker, sure, but he’s also a great storyteller, and I found myself caring a great deal about what happened to the characters in Leviathan — what happened with Dmitri’s blackmail plot against Vadim and Kolya’s attempts to keep his property. It’s not that the film doesn’t answer these questions — it does — but as the spiritual subtext took over, I couldn’t help but feel that something essential had been lost. The state overwhelms the individual; so, too, by the end, does this beautiful, strange movie.