There's a scene near the exact midpoint of Andrei Zvyagintsev's Leviathan where the main characters enjoy an idyll on the Russian coastline. They have been involved in a tense legal battle against the authorities, but for a moment, they appear victorious. So they tease each other, drink vodka, and unwind by creating their own makeshift shooting range—first with empty bottles, then with a framed portrait of Brezhnev. There's a tartness to the scene, not just from the booze and guns, but from the fact that just about everyone present has a dark, boorish, unethical side. But there's a merry populism mixed in as well. One of the true surprises of Leviathan is, for such a dour film, how much humor can be found in it. These people could just as easily be the townsfolk of Bedford Falls or John Ford's Ireland, and the film feels genuinely fond of them, boorishness and all. It's easily Leviathan's funniest, loosest passage, which is important for two reasons. First, it relieves the tight symmetry of the film's more austere settings (the courtroom and the church), and second, playing looseness against inevitability is Leviathan's entire purpose. Because from this looseness, a key incident occurs, an act of infidelity that creates a rift and sends the protagonists scattered. And just as it happens, a child remarks off-screen, "What is 'mayhem'?"
Zvyagintsev's previous film was Elena (2011), and anyone who saw it will recognize the method in Leviathan: a low-tempo allegory of class warfare, done in an icy palette (lots of light blue) and punctuated with a score from Phillip Glass. What's changed is the scope. Elena was a single moral dilemma stretched to feature length, and here, working again with screenwriter Oleg Negin, Zvyagintsev expands the intimate drama into a larger ensemble piece, pushing up the run-time, encompassing a wider range of tones, and stretching out the themes in search of grandeur. Elena could be read as an allegory of communist revolution, in which a misanthropic patriarch who doesn't deserve his wealth is overthrown by a rabble who don't deserve it either. Leviathan could be the spiritual sequel, or rather the next step in a country's political evolution. The ruins of the Soviet Union's industrial machine dot the coastline. Capitalism and the church have risen, and in a nice touch of art direction, scenes of bribery take place under an amusingly glum portrait of Putin. But the implication that Zvyagintsev and Negin aim for is something wider: the way that, from chaos, an old authority under a new name will reassert itself. Leviathan is a requiem for anarchy, and the fact that it knows enough about the vagaries of human nature to be halfway suspicious of anarchy makes it all the more intriguing.
The central drama of the film revolves around a land dispute. Kolya, alcoholic and temperamental, lives on the rural Russian shore with his distant wife Lilia and his sullen son Roma. The town's corrupt mayor Vadim (oafish, dangerous, boozy himself) is seizing their land on official business, and in return offering only a fraction of what it's worth. Kolya's old army friend, Dmitri, now a lawyer in the city, volunteers his counsel and arrives in town with a folder full of leverage: crimes the mayor committed under the past regime, which would damage him if made public. The blackmail appears to work, but there's a small detail in the exchange that gives an idea of what game Zvyagintsev is playing. Instead of being offered to keep the land, Dmitri and Kolya are instead promised its full market value, and this is treated as David's (temporary) triumph over Goliath. A more sentimental director, or just a more American one, would have had them insist on the family home. A fair price is a much colder, less personal prize—but then, isn't it also the promise of the new capitalism?
The mayor prepares to fight back. He has lackeys and hatchetmen. He also has a priest and spiritual advisor, whose advice is part clerical detachment ("We're all in God's hands") and part encouragement to twist the knife. Leviathan is, needless to say, a very political film, angry at corrupt government, corrupt capitalism, and most of all a corrupt religious right that condones both. (In its homeland, the film's international success has picked up a long and varied list of angry critics, from politicians to the church). But like a good many political films, it's best statements are ones made indirectly, or with a degree of subtlety. The mayor's role in how the film ends is never made explicitly clear, though all the hints towards conspiracy and exploitation are there. In the end, it is vital that his opportunity to tighten the noose arises from the characters' natural weaknesses: because Kolya is a drunk, because Dmitri is afraid, because Lilia is given to despondency, because Roma isn't there to bear witness, because their friends are suspicious—in short, because everyone is only human—their small victory will not be able to sustain itself. The system will, in the long run, self-correct. The very idea is there in the opening shot, with a rock cliff on the Russian coast—solid, intractable—and the waves that keep smashing up against it. It's a statement not for a particular regime, but for regimes in general. Russia has certainly tried enough of them.
Zvyagintsev's debut The Return (2003) and follow-up The Banishment (2007) earned him comparisons to Andrei Tarkovsky. In both cases, there is similarity in the imagery and archetypes he chose: water, trees, rain, nature, city, country, father, son, and the long takes that can turn all of them into myth. But he looks less like a Tarkovsky disciple with each passing film. In part, this is because he's much more of a conventional dramatist, one with a more gregarious and nuanced eye for character. He's all but abandoned the Tarkovskian mysticism you can find skimming the surface in his first two films. Even Leviathan's use of symbolism feels literal—the whale skeleton on the beach, like the remains of the old empire—whereas the flailing horse in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev or the loyal dog in Stalker are apparitions beamed directly from the subconscious. Like Tarkovsky, he'll draw out the length of the drama to let it work upon you gradually. But the way the images and scenes of Leviathan and Elena connect to one another is jagged rather than fluid. That's one reason the Philip Glass score is perfect for his method: it never grows or climaxes, it just enters, spins, and disappears. Leviathan is more like a clockwork mechanism than a meditation, its pieces slowly and methodically put into place, their purpose not entirely clear until Zvyagintsev throws the switch.
For this reason, he makes me think of the melodramas of another clockmaker: Fritz Lang, cinema's ultimate bard of inevitability clamping down on ordinary souls. The difference is that where Lang feared a godless world, Zvyagintsev appears certain of one, and perhaps Leviathan's biggest break from the Tarkovsky tradition is not only that its politics are earthy rather than spiritual, but that it regards spirituality as a con when there's so much of the material world left to sort out. One of the final sequences of Leviathan recalls the ecstatic illuminations at the end of Andrei Rublev, turned sickeningly ironic. The heroine of Elena was religious as well, frequently in prayer, and by the end, it didn't justify her actions so much as put them in a peculiarly ambiguous context. Leviathan may be the best, richest film Zvyagintsev has made so far, the most immaculately constructed and forcefully articulated, the one that reaches the farthest and grabs hold of the most. And yet there is a sense that it's tilted towards its own limitations. The danger of tackling inevitability—its causes, its effects, its home in the West or the East—is that very little can come as a surprise.