By Alec Julian & Carrie White
“Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” wrote Thomas Hobbes, the early-modern political philosopher who established social contract theory, in his Leviathan, the namesake of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (THE RETURN) new film. Hobbes contended that, in lieu an anarchic state of nature void of morality, individuals cede their liberties, incorporating, by vesting their wills to a greater vessel, a sovereign. That sovereign, or Leviathan, enacts ethics through lawmaking. The underlying assumption being that this sovereign (a man, of course) is innately qualified. That, in a nutshell, was the justification for absolute monarchy; that the ruler knows best. More tale than treatise, Zvyagintsev’s LEVIATHAN, set in a modern-day northern Russian coastal town, shows that the social contract is no more than a thin veil over the state of nature – a state of war.
Hobbes was the son of a derelict father, who was an alcoholic, like many of the characters in LEVIATHAN, most notably, its hero, “Kolya.” An irascible mechanic, Kolya’s involved in, ostensibly, an eminent domain case, yet, it becomes clear, early on, that he’s actually fighting a corrupt city government to prevent the seizure and demolishing, for private interests, of his house by the sea. Less of a boozer, but happy to imbibe, an old army pal, a Muscovite jurist with connections, arrives on scene to blackmail the hard-drinking mayor into, at least, remunerating Kolya more generously than the rigged courts have ruled. With the exception of Kolya’s wife – Kolya’s remarried, which makes drama for his teenage son – the social milieu is lush. Kolya’s friends, two traffic cops, celebrate a birthday by waking up early, drinking, and firing automatic weapons at photographs of Soviet premiers.
The result is tragicomic. Zvyagintsev ably directs scenes of inebriation, in which characters toe the line between incoherence and incredulous acting, slurring and stumbling, but not losing consciousness, or the viewer’s attention. In this drunk way, the first half of the film unfolds, a bit indulgently, documenting the quotidian agonies and ecstasies of the disempowered. It is following the midpoint, arguably the climax, that matters become graver, and the movie shapes into a grim masterpiece.
Zvyagintsev, working with cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, begins and ends, with a spate of dark and blue-hued, wide-angle establishing shots – while the sea, its ebb and flow, serves as the opening shot. Although, plot-wise, the sea becomes quite significant, it is not clear why Zvyagintsev does not open with the image of the skeleton of the whale, which he intersperses throughout, since Leviathan, in modern Hebrew, also denotes a great sea-creature, such as a whale.
More precisely, though, Leviathan refers to a biblical sea monster, the companion of Behemoth, both of which are found in story of Job. In that story, which is a priest in the movie alludes to, God uses these creatures’ might to demonstrate Job’s feebleness. In this way, the state is a apt comparison to the Leviathan, inasmuch as Kolya stands a fool’s chance at winning his case. Allied with the state is the Church, a staple, as old as alcohol, of Russian culture, which has endured through a variety of governments – feudalist, monarchist, communist, and “democratic” – while maintaining a steady grasp on the consciousness of land’s people.
With the representation of The Russian Orthodox Church by way of a church demagogue, who didactically advises the corrupt mayor, Zvyagintsev gravitates toward a cynical view of power structures, viewing them as soulless artifices. However, remaining, dramatically, about a single a man and his failings, LEVIATHAN is hardly a one-note diatribe – it is a masterwork.
Carrie White is the best-selling author of Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life. She tweets @carriewhitehair.
Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer. Follow him @PaparazziPorn.