Early in Leviathan, its hapless hero, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), receives a court judgment regarding his property, which his town’s corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov) has seized via some Russian equivalent of eminent domain. The judgment, written in stultifying legalese, goes on for pages and pages, and it’s read aloud, at high speed but in a deadly monotone. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev sustains this scene until it achieves that singular effect in which something starts out funny, becomes boring through repetition, and is repeated for so damn long that it circles back around to being hilarious again. Mostly, though, it’s intended as an early warning about what happens when the common man attempts to fight city hall, even when he’s clearly in the right. The system has devised a procedure one must follow, and the procedure has been carefully crafted to intimidate through a sheer deluge of bureaucracy. Insist on wading through it, as Kolya stubbornly does, and the state will simply resort to stronger measures.
Part of the frustration for Kolya is that his tormentors barely even make an effort to disguise their intentions. The land grab has no compelling reason that serves the public interest—Kolya just happens to have inherited a house with a spectacular view of the Barents Sea, and the mayor wants the location for himself. When an appeal through the proper channels fails, Kolya’s lawyer friend, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), decides it’s time to play dirty, amassing damning evidence of the mayor’s misdeeds and openly blackmailing him: Back off or this goes public. The petty despot seems blithely unconcerned, however, and the rest of the movie makes it abundantly, horribly clear why he’s not quaking in his boots. Zvyagintsev has described Leviathan (named for a symbolic whale skeleton near Kolya’s house) as a contemporary riff on the story of Job, but there’s no indication that Kolya is being tested, or that his suffering has some larger point. He’s just at the mercy of forces—including, pointedly, the Russian Orthodox Church—that are much more ruthless than he ever imagined. And this is local government.
In his three previous films (The Return, The Banishment, Elena), Zvyagintsev frequently pushed past sober into dour, leaning too heavily on a characteristically Soviet sense of gloom and doom. (See also: Alexander Sokurov, Nikita Mikhalkov, Pavel Lungin. Is there a modern-day Chekhov in the country somewhere?) Leviathan is another downer, but it’s considerably looser and livelier than its predecessors, verging at times on black comedy. Zvyagintsev also cannily withholds key information, especially regarding Kolya’s wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who’s frequently on-screen but whose thoughts remain a mystery. In the film’s second half, several characters take actions that seem to come out of nowhere, creating the impression of a subterranean narrative underlying the deeply cynical one on the surface. It’s even possible to arrive at an interpretation of events—hinging upon whether one person did or didn’t commit a certain crime toward the end—that upends Leviathan’s apparent meaning, turning it into an inquiry about the hidden recesses of the human heart. That’s probably stretching it, frankly, but even a little ambiguity is much appreciated.