Looking at the impressions of the Academy, other awards organizations, and the vast number of critics who have seen Leviathan, I get the impression my opinion on this film will hold up as a very unpopular one. Still that seems just as good a reason to say it as any.
Andrey Zvyagintsev's latest film is an impressive portrait of the corrupt nature of Russian politics. The mere fact that Leviathan was so heavily chosen by the country of Russia as its representative film says a great deal, because the content of the film attempts to be, and for the most part is rather damning. Of course, a film like this could be set in many countries (the United States included) but it informs so very much that the location of this particularly film be in a communist state. Regardless, for all of that praise that I give to the country for allowing this piece to exist and be widely distributed, the final film still manages to fall quite short of its lofty expectations.
Leviathan tells the story of Nikolai Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), his wife (Elena Lyadova) and son. When the Mayor of their small town (Roman Madyanov) goes after Kolya's land for his own personal gain, Nikolai brings in his old wartime friend and now Moscow lawyer Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to help save his home. But this new visitor only creates more problems. This is a film about overwhelming corruption, injustice, and well... poetical nonsense. And for ever element that it manages to get right, the last quarter of the film manages to get just as much completely wrong.
I'll begin with the run time... two hours and twenty minutes was just outrageously too long for this flick. It easily could have made its point within an hour and a half and left me wanting more... but instead (and I usually advocate allowing a film time to breathe) Zvyagintsev and his writer Oleg Negin opted to just let scenes of little import linger and disassociate the audience from the actual subject being discussed. Similarly, the film's ultimate payoff could have been reached at least a half hour earlier without several useless plot additions... but then I suppose this is the nature of the Russian novel and will always find its way into the art of that country.
But if the concept is that corruption has become the way of things, and that a man alone is too small to take on the rising tide of his own government in a just and fair manner, the film does eventually manage to make this point. Unfortunately, for all of its concise and quality plot weaving through the first hour and a half, it manages to become just as uncertain and awkwardly metaphorical toward the end. I don't mean to hammer this idea to death... but there is a real chance I would have loved this film had the church metaphors not taken such a profound control over the ending leaving the characters, who were so well drawn and acted, ultimately in the dust. Yes there is an element of this in the concept of the title... it's all too big for individuals, but the payoff becomes almost secondary to the attempt at a much broader and poorly explained or exemplified idea.
In time I believe I'll only recall Leviathan as a profound misuse of an excellent theme. It will linger in my mind for a while yet as that film that easily could have been perfect, but came unhinged just when it could have reeled it in. It's unfortunate. But these things do happen I suppose. After all, artists and filmmakers are only human.