The cinematography is stunning, and the opening shots of the coastal town Pribrezhny are captivating with its play on shadows and contrast in the bare bones of wrecked ships that are just as desolately beached as the bleached bones of a giant whale. I was certain I was in good hands here as I settled into my seat. The large windows that let in ample amounts of light and the use of diegetic sounds off-screen to propel the movie (as it were) are all skillful renderings of Zvyagintsev in a movie that otherwise feels a little too visually choreographed or lazy.
Unfortunately, I felt that the numbing aspect of this movie -- shown in the incessant crashing of waves at the beginning, the Kafka-esque reading of a ridiculous and ultimately irrelevant court sentence, and the sort of constant misfortune took away from the tension. The point seems to be more our helplessness in the face of daily monotony -- shown in sparse shots at the fish slicing factory and in the expressions of our protagonist's family. When the unfortunate circumstances start, they pile on rather quickly, but it takes almost two hours to get to this point. I felt that knowing that this was a Russian Job story created more tension than anything else in the movie had I watched the film without any prior knowledge.
There's a dual control of government and religion here as we're presented with looming paintings of both Putin and Jesus, and a court scene is echoed in a later church scene. It seems that those who suffer the most are the ones that aren't certain of what they believe or those who try to flout authority. The blatant and confident blusterings of Pribrezhny's mayor are only possible because of his fully realized authority.
The movie is visually captivating, but I think the backdrop does more work for the movie than any storytelling or attempt to build up the plot on Zvyagintsev's part. Some motifs are hemmed and hawed at too much for us to miss them, and some visual cues seem to be more a waving of arms on the director's arms. For a movie that pleads an opposition to the heavy-handling of the government, the director does plenty of visual and story handholding of his own.
The acting is stunning though and beautifully understated at times. Standout for me is Elena Lyadova, and how she shows a break or a strained control in her reserved role as Kolya's wife. I wish the visual aspects of the movie were given as much trust as the actors are in their relationships with each other, which have a weight and history that can't always be conveyed with mere words. Other than that and some beautiful photography, there wasn't much for me to hold on to with Leviathan.
*on a final note, illustration is by Jeremiah Moon and the first of many collaborations hopefully pairing movie reviews with his work.