LEVIATHAN (Левиафан)

None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before Me?
Who hath prevented me, that I should repay him? Whatsoever is under the whole heaven is Mine.

Job 41:10-11, King James Version

Leviathan, the latest movie from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, asks many questions, but the one it revolves around is a simple one: “Why, Lord?” That question, asked by Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a simple man of simple means, has lost his home, his wife, his son, his friends, and his future. The only things he has left are his questions, and the half-empty bottle of vodka clutched in his trembling hands. The Lord does not answer Kolya, but if He did, it is doubtful Kolya would like the answer given.

Located on a Russian peninsula, high in the Arctic Circle, the small seaside village of Leviathan used to be a fishing town, but those days are gone, and only the skeletal remains of aquatic beasts reference the prosperous time that has passed. Now, the villagers spend each waking day drowning their troubles in a sea of vodka—which they do—and bicker over petty things—which they do as well.

But petty grievances take a dark turn when the corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), uses his political position to evict Kolya, his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his preteen son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) from their home. Kolya hires Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to defend him, but it soon becomes clear that Dmitriy’s attention is not on Kolya’s house, but on Kolya’s wife.

Leviathan is distinctly and intrinsically Russian. Yet, the genesis was not born out of the Russian peninsula where it is filmed, but from an event that took place in Granby, Colorado in 2004, when Marvin Heemeyer, a 55-year-old welder, armored a Komatsu D355A bulldozer with steel and concrete and went on a rampage, destroying a town hall, the former mayor’s house and multiple buildings before taking his own life with a handgun. The cause of Heemeyer’s rampage was due to a zoning dispute.

While many argued whether Heemeyer was a hero or a vigilante, Zvyagintsev zeroed in on Heemeyer’s little man plight against a bureaucratic system much greater than he. In Zvyagintsev’s hands, Heemeyer’s story moved from the local to the international, and with reference to the Book of Job, the story became universal.

Kolya is not quite as devout as Job, but he loses just as much. Misfortune hardens his heart while the vodka deadens his soul, and Zvyagintsev, along with cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, photographs the actor against an aggressively desolate wasteland, a terrain barren from trees and flowers, as bleak as Kolya’s fate.

Movies are often about what we see versus what we don’t see, and what we don’t see in Leviathan are the moments of violence and betrayal and uncontrolled emotions. What we do see is a man crushed underneath them.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Leviathan / Левиафан (2014)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Written by Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
Produced by Sergey Melkumov, Alexander Rodnyansky
Starring: Aleksey Serebryakov, Roman Madyanov, Elena Lyadova, Sergey Pokhodaev, Vladimir Vdovichenkov
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, Running time 140 minutes, Premiered May 23, 2014 at the Cannes Film Festival

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 38, “A force big enough to swallow us all.”