Leviathan: a hollow and dishonest film insulting to ordinary people ground down by corruption

Andrey Zvyagintsev, “Leviathan” (2014)

Often taken as reflective of the current socio-political situation in Russia, this film about an ordinary man, living in a remote part of northwest Russia, who loses everything due to local political corruption, other people’s betrayals, the hypocrisy of social institutions and just the fickle hand of fate was actually inspired by a series of events in the US town of Granby, in Colorado state. In the early 1990s, Marvin Heemeyer bought some land and built a muffler shop. He later agreed to sell the land to a concrete company. He then changed his mind and demanded a higher price for his land. In 2001, the local council rezoned the land and gave approval for the concrete company to build a factory there. Heemeyer fought the council’s decision (because the factory would interfere with his own business) over several years and got support from family and friends to resist it, all to no avail. In 2004, with a bulldozer that he customised himself into a virtual tank, Heemeyer demolished Granby’s town hall, the mayor’s house, several other buildings and a number of vehicles including a police SUV. Ending up stuck in the basement of a store he had razed, and surrounded by a SWAT team, Heemeyer committed suicide with his handgun.

In Zvyagintsev’s story, Granby becomes Pribrezhny, an Arctic town that has seen better days as a Soviet factory city and Heemeyer becomes Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), the local mechanic who is fighting a crooked mayor who wants Kolya’s land to build a new development. The mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), repossesses Kolya’s property at a price less than the property’s value and begins moves to evict him. Kolya enlists the help of his old army buddy, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who works as a wily lawyer in Moscow. All their appeals come to nought in court however. Dima manages to find some dirt on Vadim and threatens to expose him. Encouraged by an Orthodox priest, Vadim issues his own threat against Dima and Dima is forced to back off. In the meantime, Kolya has to deal with a delinquent teenage son Roman (Sergey Pokhdaev) who has fallen in with a local gang and his wife Lilia (Elena Lyadova) who works in the local fish plant and who secretly yearns to leave the town and the rural isolation. Bit by bit, Kolya is undone not only by Vadim’s scheming but also by Lilia and Dima when they start an affair together, and his own anger when he and some friends discover the couple’s indiscretion. A chain of events is set in motion that plunges Kolya into further hell and which reveals the corruption of Russian social and cultural institutions, the hollowness of love and friendship, and the failings of human nature. End of story.

For all the fine acting and the beautiful cinematography which makes Pribrezhny and its natural surroundings significant characters in their own right, I found the film itself hollow and dishonest. Several major characters, most of all Dima and Elena, are simply not believable in both their intelligence and stupidity: why would Dima and Elena commence an affair, knowing that by doing so they are betraying Kolya in the hour of his greatest need? It’s as if Zvyagintsev enjoys playing a pitiless God just to see how much he can make Kolya suffer. The film is meant to be about how ordinary people with all their strengths and weaknesses cope in a world where Fate always holds the upper hand, and good fortune can suddenly be swept away by bad, and yet Zvyagintsev seems to think that Kolya must be made to suffer more by ridiculously contrived situations such as Elena and Dima’s sudden love affair and his later arraignment for murder based on circumstantial evidence. Zvyagintsev’s treatment of Kolya, the simple car mechanic whose main failing seems to be drinking too much vodka, is unsympathetic, even scathing: Kolya’s reaction to every problem is either to fall into a blind rage or blind drunkenness, and the character, for all his street smarts (to the extent that he calls on a clever Moscow lawyer to help) and skill with fixing cars, seems incapable of helping himself as he is led away to jail.

The scenes that involve hypocritical or unconcerned priests add very little to the plot and serve mainly to bash the Russian Orthodox Church in a pointless and tedious way. There may be much to criticise the Church for – it did co-operate with the Soviet government in the past, and it may very well be corrupt for all I know – but Zvyagintsev’s harsh treatment of its representatives as one-dimensional idiots suggests an agenda against the Church per se and not a true criticism of its practices or program.

Oddly enough, the one character who seems true to type and who might actually invite audience sympathy is the crooked mayor who revels in stealing Kolya’s property and using thugs to kick city-slicker Dima back into his place, yet needs the bishop Vasily and the priest Lyosha to help him when Dima threatens to expose his crimes to Moscow police. Although Vadim resorts to violence to get his way, his reason for doing so is understandable. His own hypocrisy is open to the audience but he is incapable of seeing it himself; Zvyagintsev intends that the church scene in which Vadim appears be a condemnation of both Vadim and the Russian Orthodox Church, yet the audience is likely to think that Dima and Elena have committed the greater sin of betraying Kolya.

Supposedly a film about how the little people are made to suffer by the corrupt workings of government and greedy individuals together with implacable Fate, “Leviathan” ends up looking more like an insult against ordinary people like Kolya, who does what he can with the resources he has to survive.