Gloomy, dishwater gray, and often framed through dusty glass, Child 44 wastes no time announcing itself as a capital-S Serious movie that doesn’t have a clue what it’s supposed to be about. Stalinist paranoia, marital anxiety, and a serial killer figure in the murky plot, done no favors by Daniel Espinosa’s inert direction. The look is leftover Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the pace is mind-numbing.
Tom Hardy stars as Leo Demidov, an officer in the MGB, the precursor to the KGB. It’s 1951 in the Soviet Union of the Cold War-era imagination, where everyone speaks with a different Russian accent and no one can pronounce a single name right. This is, in other words, a rhetorical Soviet Union, rather than a historical one. Here, no one lives in communal apartments or drinks tea or uses diminutives or patronymics when addressing each other. They do, however, live in perpetual fear of submachine-gun-toting secret police—who, truth be told, seem to be terrible at being secret—and say things like “Murder is a strictly capitalist disease” and “Joseph Stalin, the father of us all” without a trace of irony.
The clothes and cars are mostly right, but everything else, from names to geography to social mechanics, is somewhere between phony and bogus. Of course, accuracy might be too much to ask of a movie that has a punctuation error in its opening explanatory titles and in which an actor accomplishes the impressive feat of mispronouncing “Stalin.” Again: This is a rhetorical Soviet Union, a country where a serial killer is able to roam free because the authorities are too ideologically uptight to admit that one exists. It isn’t a country that was, but a country that has to be in order for Child 44’s premise—which it takes the movie an interminable 75 minutes to establish—to sort of work.
Said premise involves Leo and his schoolteacher wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), getting denounced and booted out of Moscow by a professional rival and being relocated to Volsk. There, Leo becomes a rural police officer under one General Nesterov (Gary Oldman)—a change of circumstance that puts Leo back on the trail of a child murderer he was ordered to cover up during his time at the MGB. (In addition to a Nesterov and a Leo, Child 44 also features a Malevich and a Brodsky, which suggests that Tom Rob Smith, author of the source novel, has a bright future ahead of him naming Russian characters for Marvel.)
At this point, Child 44 all but collapses into incoherence; it often feels like the film has been arbitrarily cut down from a 10-hour miniseries. Subplots include, but are not limited to: Leo’s mistrust of his wife; denunciations at Raisa’s school, where teachers are dragged away screaming on what appears to be a daily basis; the assorted misdeeds of MGB officer Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), who is one twirled mustache away from tying Raisa to a railroad track; Leo’s strained friendship with Alexei (Fares Fares), his best friend and the father of one of the victims. Somewhere along the way, Leo kills five different people with his bare hands in unintelligible fight scenes in which the viewer can never tell who is hitting whom with what.
Presumably, Espinosa (Safe House) and screenwriter Richard Price intended something more than retro red-baiting; however, that’s all that Child 44’s confused (and occasionally confusing) mishmash of commie clichés accomplishes. Espinosa, for his part, seems more interested in composing handsomely under-lit interiors and slow zooms than in organizing a film. The result is a combination political thriller and serial-killer procedural that’s remarkable only for its complete and total lack of suspense.