There are many monsters in Leviathan, although they are not always easy to spot. Some remain in sight, bobbing on the surface, while others hide in the shadows of the seabed, hoping to never be discovered. Over the course of his slow-burning and subtly satirical drama, director Andrey Zvyagintsev seeks to reveal the monster that lurks in each of us. The results are spellbinding.
The focus of Zvyagintsev’s story (co-written with Oleg Neguine) is the characters, their situations, and their actions. Narrative is a mere by-product. Koyla (Alexey Serebryakov) lives with his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his son Romka (Sergey Pokhodaev) in a house he built himself that’s situated on a serene rocky shore. However, the local Mayor (Roman Madyanov) wants the land for lucrative redevelopment, and has locked Koyla in to a brutal legal battle that he is sure to loose.
When we meet Koyla, we already know his fate. We just don’t know we do. The landscape Zvyagintsev introduces us to is indelibly grey, bathed in the ominous tones of Phillip Glass’ score and covered with the wrecks of fishing boats that have lodged on the rocks and the skeletons of whales that have washed up on the beach. It’s a land without hope, discernibly opposite to the warmth and comfort of the Mayor’s office.
The class divide it reveals is one of Zvyagintsev’s driving themes. News coverage from the past few years has revealed the corruption rife in the Russian political system, but this is perhaps the first accessible film that tackles the issue head on. It is within this vicious whirlpool that the surface monsters dwell. Roman Madyanov’s small fat Mayor may not cut an imposing figure, but the command he so menacingly holds over others is startling. At one point a rival with the courage to stand up to him is dragged against his will to a quarry and forced to face a loaded gun. That the Mayor is able to conduct such actions without fear of retribution lifts the lid on one of Zvyagintsev’s salient points that in a society split by class, it is money that brings power.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that those without wealth are innocent. For in Zvyagintsev’s world, everyone is a monster in their own way. People are all dishonest; they cheat, they steal, they lie, and when they’re found out, the world around them begins to collapse. It is here that Mikhail Krichman’s camera comes to life, focusing on the faces of those affected in a resolute but unobtrusive way that, when compounded with the notions of money and class, paints a vivid and complex picture of human frailty that reverberates across all realms of all societies. Impressively, these moments are all constructed quietly. The powerful emotional punch comes from the natural restraint of the spectacular performances, which never resort to augmenting the effect with ostentation.
The pace throughout is slow and methodical, absorbing you in to a dark environment of desperation as Koyla and those who surround him try to comprehend the reality of what’s happening around them. It’s bleak certainly, but Zvyagintsev is careful to ensure it never becomes overbearing. Underpinning the film from the start is a subtle comic streak that’s sprinkled with a surprising dash of political satire, which balances the inauspicious tone.
No matter how witty Leviathan is though, once the credits roll and all that remains is the residue, it is the haunting observations on human nature, society, money, and power that cloud your mind. Zvyagintsev’s film is a muted masterpiece from the moment it begins, plunging to the very depths of human depravity to reveal the monsters that hide inside us all.