Cold, quiet, isolated, unforgiving. These attributes reflect both the North West Russian setting and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. Learn the landscape, learn the themes. As Zvyagintsev surveys this harsh territory his camera takes in the lives of its human inhabitants in a drama both primeval and political. Combining passion and anger with the presence of Russian authority and corruption, Zvyagintsev’s tale is both biblical and contemporary, as the hunger for power and money consumes all in its path.
Leviathan focuses on Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his fight against the local mayor, Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov), to keep his property. The mayor wants the land to build on and isn’t about to let the mechanic and his family stand in his way.
Kolya calls on help from a friend from his army days, Moscow-dwelling lawyer Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to lend a hand in this one-sided battle and things begin to turn in his favour as Dmitri uses his connections to flummox the mayor. Dmitri is the white-knight that Kolya needed to hold on to the house he built with his own hands, but he quickly learns that in this world of betrayal and corruption, no man is pure. Dmitri certainly isn’t the hero Kolya needs.
Zvyagintsev displays the overwhelming power of the law when it is forced upon Kolya, a simple man, yet how futile it is as an aid in his favour. One law for the poor, one for the rich may be suggested here, but really, are there any laws for either of them when men can be silenced in the anonymous countryside. Dmitri, with all his good intentions, will never be a match for the callous and violent Vadim. He may come off on top during an electric tete-a-tete, but words may only get you so far when you lack the stomach for evil.
Zyvagintsev fills Leviathan with tension. Sometimes by casually inserting firearms into scenes, other times the deftness of his writing gives a nerve-shattering force to simple drunken conversation between friends. The hot-tempered Kolya is forever a time bomb, Serebryakov is an astute choice as he gives the role a weathered pride, the sort of a man who is desperate to stand up for himself, only to find his comfort at the bottom of a vodka bottle.
Tonally rich yet painted with a drab pallet of blues and greys, Leviathan’s characters are disparate, alone despite the occasional embraces of friendship. Even Lilya (Elena Lyadova), Kolya’s wife, who is a beautiful jewel amidst the colourless surroundings, rarely musters a smile. Happiness seems like a long forgotten concept and Zvyagintsev’s cold direction brings this to the fore.
The people of this dynamic and shattering drama are but ants in the face of compassionless and relentless greed. Their lives are destroyed at a whim, the grim reality that stepping on them isn’t a difficult decision for their overlords. Though one of the most wonderful juxtapositions of Leviathan is power and weakness placed hand in hand, there is an ever present feeling that authority is only possible with the consent of those at the next level.