“Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s Leviathan is a sober and compelling tragic drama of corruption and intimidation in contemporary Russia, set in a desolate widescreen panorama,” begins Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian. “This is a movie which seems to be influenced by the Old Testament and Elia Kazan; it starts off looking like a reasonably scaled drama about a little guy taking on big government. Then it escalates to a new plane in which man is taking on the biggest, cruelest, and most implacable government of all, and the final sequence of devastation must surely be influenced by the final moments of Tarkovsky‘s The Sacrifice.”
“Leviathan is set around a small, economically depressed fishing port on a mountain-flanked inlet somewhere in northern Russia,” writes Barbara Scharres for RogerEbert.com. “Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), with a ruddy, chiseled face and a hair-trigger temper, lives in the house his grandparents built on a lonely outcropping of land with his second wife Lilya (Elena Liadova) and his teenage son. The town mayor (Roman Madianov), a swinish character with a gangster past who manages to simultaneously fulfill and transcend every stereotype of his kind, wants the land…. There’s a lawyer friend from Moscow with a plan, an unwise secret affair, and a quantity of heavy drinking in which the vodka bottle is increasingly a black-humorous symbol of folly…. A bleached whale skeleton makes a brief appearance, but Leviathan proposes that the monster is something far more alive, sinister, and very, very large.”
“Simultaneously a modern essay on suffering, an open-ended thriller, and a black social comedy, it is most importantly of all a thinly-veiled political parable drenched in bitter irony that takes aim against the corrupt, corrosive regime of Vladimir Putin,” writes Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter. “The wacky punchline is that it was made with financial support from the Russian Ministry of Culture…. While Tarkovsky’s work was feted and revered abroad during his lifetime, his aesthetic and thematic deviations from the Party line put him in direct conflict with the Soviet authorities and ultimately forced him into exile. Zvyagintsev, on the other hand, has suffered no persecution from the regime currently in power in Russia—yet…. With this, Zvyagintsev pretty much nails his colors to the mast.”
“This is the director’s most accessible and naturalistic film,” writes Peter Debruge in Variety. “In the end, nothing will surprise Zvyagintsev fans more than discovering how funny the film is, as the helmer and co-writer Oleg Negin (a collaborator on The Banishment, the family tragedy this most resembles) extend the darkly satirical streak they began with Elena. Whereas that film was criticized by some as judging the lower classes too harshly, this one is unequivocally empathetic toward its working-class characters, who suffer daily at the hands of corrupt politicians. Imagine an American movie in which off-duty cops use portraits of past presidents for target practice, or a scene in which an openly sinful, absolution-buying mayor cautions his son, ‘God sees everything.'”
Leviathan is “a stingingly effective pitch-black comedy,” agrees Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, who gives the film a rare A+. “Zvyagintsev credits Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 tome of the same name for inspiring the movie’s outlook on governmental control, but the filmmaker reaches for cosmic element in the tension between his angry, isolated subjects and the indifference of the system gradually crushing them…. Bookending the drama with spectacular exterior images of his setting, he stages the conflict against an expansive landscape blanketed in the deep blues of water and sky. Emboldened by an unconventionally restrained Philip Glass score, the movie strikes a tone that’s both spiritually poignant and ominous at the same time.”
At Screen Daily, Dan Fainaru suggests that “this tale of graft, multiple betrayals, corruption and larceny is so universally familiar that one could imagine it unfolding anywhere…. The essence, however, is not in the plot, but in the images. Every one of the shots looks like a lecture on the distribution of characters and landscape in the space of one frame, the work being almost too meticulous for its own good, so evident is it to the naked eye…. Mikhail Kirchman’s cinematography is striking, a marvel to behold at all times, whether he deals with dark interiors or vast landscapes.”
Updates: “Leviathan is sweeping, curious and bold,” writes Time Out‘s Dave Calhoun. “If it inspires doubts, it’s that some of the targets are a little obvious and it carries some weight of self-importance, leaving little to the imagination. Like Elena before it, this is a parable, but it’s a grander affair unafraid to wander down some unusual paths with all the detail and density of a great novel.”
“If there was ever any doubt as to Zvyagintsev’s position as one of world cinema’s foremost auteurs, it’s put to rest here,” writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist. “His filmmaking has always been superb, but he’s never taken on the state of his nation in the way he does here. And that makes Leviathan not just masterful but also hugely important.”
“Zvyagintsev’s latest is a powerful and compelling retelling of the biblical Book of Job,” writes John Bleasdale at CineVue. “Zvyagintsev’s pessimism is leavened both by his comedy and his sense of beauty.”
“After some reflection, it now seems clear to me that Leviathan is ‘merely’ intended as a cynical, sometimes darkly comic take on the futility of fighting City Hall,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve, “and it’s brutally effective on that score… I say ‘merely,’ though, because Zvyagintsev… cuts closer to the bone when he explores—or pointedly doesn’t explore—his characters’ subterranean emotions.”
Leviathan is a “middling-quality dirge,” finds Time‘s Richard Corliss.
Update, 5/24: Sony Pictures Classics has acquired U.S. and Canada rights, reports Variety.
Updates, 5/25: First, Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin have won the Best Screenplay award.
Now then, Peter Labuza at the Film Stage: “For a state that suppressed religion for more than half of the 20th century, Christian faith plays a central undercurrent throughout Zvyagintsev’s moral drama, with two priests (a ‘modern’ one and a highly Orthodox one) delivering various sermons to the characters engaged in this fight. These lectures at many points prove overwhelming to the carefully attuned performances and narrative beats that otherwise rely so little on direct exposition. More and more, faith becomes a sole explanation for the incomprehensibility of events at play.”
“The movie marches inexorably toward tragedy, drawing a conclusion that’s both incredibly cynical and a little moth-bitten,” finds the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd. “The symbolism, too, is pretty heavy-handed, though it’s hard to really complain about breathtaking images of whale skeletons sprawled across windswept beaches.”
Geoff Andrew for Sight & Sound: “Zvyagintsev is a remarkably talented filmmaker: again his delineation of his deftly drawn, beautifully acted characters’ motives, his eloquent but faintly mysterious, even mythic use of place and his ability to create suspense through a masterly control of atmosphere are put to very effective use.” That said: “This writer, at any rate, felt that the film finally didn’t quite deliver as much as the first 90 minutes had promised. But then again, it promises so much more than most movies, and it would be profoundly churlish—not to say erroneous—to describe Leviathan as anything other than a substantial and very impressive achievement.”
Updates, 6/2: Leviathan is “a classically robust, not inordinately complicated melodrama that nonetheless seems to be about something different every time I sit down to tackle it,” writes Guy Lodge at In Contention. “It’s a film, like a rich novel, from which you might wish to re-read extracts while only halfway through; it’s certainly the first film I wished I could pause while I brushed up on the Book of Job. It is, obviously enough, quite something.”
And it “should solidify [Zvyagintsev’s] unparalleled ascension as the most important auteur to rise out of Russia since Andrei Tarkovsky,” argues Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.