"Don't you recognize authority when you see it?" Mayor Vadim Shelevyat certainly has a way with words. The unsubtle threat he lobs at a constituent named Nikolay during the opening act of Andrei Zvyagintsev's striking Leviathan evokes the arrogance and brazen indiscretion of absolute power. Their argument over a piece of land has finally reached a tipping point, having worked its way through the broken court system and into the real world. Now the confrontation will have near-biblical consequences. Leviathan is, after all, a modern update of The Book of Job.
Squabbles like this one might be commonplace in the quaint coastal community of the film's setting, but Zvyagintsev establishes this particular feud as specifically catastrophic. Much of the film looks critically at the ideological divide between government officials and the citizens they are tasked with representing. Failures of the system reside in every frame, from crumbling architectural marvels to oil barrels bobbing on the ocean surface. Shots of crashing waves and beaches littered with whalebones augment the serious tone, reminding that the only thing more forceful and destructive than human immorality is nature's fury.
If Vadim (Roman Madyanov) personifies the long-gestating rot of Russia's crippling institutional corruption—his office walls are adorned with pictures of Putin—Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryak) comes to represent the impotence and self-destruction of the country's blue-collar populace. The property in question has been in his family for years, but it doesn't necessarily ensure a brighter future for an adolescent son who seems destined for delinquency or his young wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), permanently unhappy even when draped in full sunlight.
Vadim's motives are purely self-serving; he wants the land so he can build a lavish new church to appease the religious fathers who've helped him win election.
In order to stave off the inevitable, Nikolay recruits a lawyer friend from Moscow. Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) strides into town like a foreign cowboy coming to save the natives from annihilation. Arriving by train (a classic Western trope), he immediately begins making waves with Vadim in order to protect his old buddy's homestead. Leviathan inevitably proves the fallibility of such retaliatory actions when facing down government officials insulated by bribes, police protection and free reign. Who needs killers when you've got exhausting and stupefying bureaucracy?
As Leviathan turns increasingly oppressive and gloomy, the theme of erosion takes hold. Multiple structures stand blown-out, held up by three walls and resembling something like an open-faced cement sandwich. Incessant rain pours down at the most inopportune times, turning all walking surfaces into muddy corridors lacking anything resembling traction. Zvyagintsev's symbolism borders on abrasive, yet the calculating and flawed patterns of the characters deserve to be overtly mirrored by their surroundings. This relationship gives the film's conflict a massive feel, despite being an incredibly micro narrative.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, Leviathan surprisingly hasn't drawn the ire of Putin's regime. One of the best—and most absurd—sequences finds Nikolay, Dmitriy and a drunken sheriff using portraits of old politicians for target practice on the beach during a pivotal birthday party where shots of vodka are the main course. One character gleefully mows down an entire row of frames with an AK-47. Overkill? Maybe, but it may prove to be the only way men like Nikolay can voice their frustrations and rage against the cowards they hate who are protected by power.
Leviathan opens Friday, Feb. 13, in time for Valentine's Day, but those interested in a happy love story will want to stay away. This brooding goliath of a movie leaves a mark by showing a nation's populace slowly eating itself. Like Zvyagintsev's The Return, it frankly addresses the sinking of masculinity and family structure in modern Russia. The years have taken their toll, and what's left looks a lot like a society of zombies.