As its imposing title suggests, the Russian drama "Leviathan" is something of a monster movie. It turns on a modern-day Job who endures trials and tribulations in an Arctic town in northern Russia. Some of his miseries are self-inflicted — he’s a boozer, not the pious soul of the Bible story — but many of his agonies originate with corrupt authorities, including the local mayor, a Hobbesian brute who sits at his desk under a photograph of Vladimir Putin. The director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, has a heavenly eye but a leaden hand, and his movie is as heavy as it is transporting, filled with stirring shots of the natural world and deep dives into a human realm flooded with tears and vodka.
The Job here is a middle-aged mechanic, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov, all glower and soul), who lives on a majestic, isolated spit of coast with his second wife, Lilya (a fine Elena Liadova), and teenage son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), from an earlier marriage. Kolya works out of a tiny garage next to the house, a heart-skippingly lovely fixer-upper with flaking walls, the usual cozy clutter and enormous picture windows that face the water, visually closing the distance between the interior and the exterior. The austere splendor of this scenery — with its craggy mountains, sweeps of treeless land and pools of water — makes a fitting stage for the characters, who match the landscape’s severity with gruff manners, crude words, brute actions and grave, unsmiling faces.
Written by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, who earlier paired up for "Elena," the movie follows Kolya as he tries to hang onto his house, his land, his life. The mayor, Vadim (Roman Madianov, who’s great at being horrible), has made a play for Kolya’s property, and now the case has reached the appeal stage. Kolya, in turn, has enlisted Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov, excellent), a Moscow lawyer and old friend who arrives as the story commences. Kolya’s appeal is summarily denied (an official speed-talks the verdict like a cattle auctioneer), but Dmitri has dirt on Vadim. The mayor squeals, retreats and plots — he has the law, the courts and God, or at least a religious leader, on his side — only to come down on Kolya like a hammer.
Zvyagintsev’s visual gifts are worthy of the movie’s natural landscapes. He opens "Leviathan" with images of the coast, where the brilliant Arctic water doesn’t simply ebb and flow, but seems to caress and lash the earth, the waves shimmering with eddies of a midnight hue and glints of pure Yves Klein blue. The rhythms of the water, along with the soft sapphire light and Zvyagintsev’s filmmaking — every image is immaculately framed, and every camera move conveys the deliberate thought behind it — pull you in with seemingly irresistible power. The overall effect on the viewer is of near-inundation, a feeling that’s reinforced by the soundtrack, which features the hypnotic swirling of Philip Glass’ 1983 opera, "Akhnaten," about the rise and fall of that Egyptian pharaoh.
Kolya’s story starts with his taking a nose dive and continues with his sinking deeper. Calamity leads to catastrophe, and a smack across a head is followed by thrown fists and brandished guns. As the insults and bruises accumulate, it becomes evident that Kolya’s faith isn’t being tested, even when he accusingly asks a priest, "Where is your merciful God?"
It’s indicative of Zvyagintsev’s storytelling that when bread that this priest gives away ends up in a muddy pen — where pigs soon devour these religiously suggestive loaves — the director holds the shot of the guzzling porkers in what can only be described as the needless force-feeding of the viewer. Such bluntness can be maddening, even as Zvyagintsev’s feeling for beauty (every pig ear looks lighted with care) grips you.
As the movie’s title also suggests, Kolya is a Job in a Hobbesian war of all against all, one he appears to have joined long ago. In Hobbes’ "Leviathan," he argues for absolute sovereign power as a defense against the state of nature and a life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." This magnificent, exasperating movie is on the longish side, partly so that the devastating cost of absolute power can be announced again and again: in the picture of Putin; in a nod to dissident music group Pussy Riot; in a Rasputin-like figure; in the misery, sorrow and vodka. Despite flashes of absurdist comedy from some secondary characters, the movie closes around you like the fist it protests and laments. In the Bible, Job rends his mantle; it’s no wonder that Kolya takes another drink instead.