Leviathan is a depressing commentary on Russian corruption and its impact on the lives of ordinary people.
Nikolay lives and works in a rural area of Russia. He is in the final throes of being evicted from his ancestral home and lands because the local government wants his land. In the final court appeal, his brother, a lawyer in Moscow, comes down to represent him in court. They will lose the appeal, but his brother Dmitriy has a folder of dirt on the mayor who is behind the eviction. They cannot stop the eviction, but perhaps they can extract more compensation money from the mayor.
The movie also focuses on the complicity of relationships. Nikolay’s wife, Lilya, is not the mother of his child Roma. The teenage boy is a handful and does not accept Lilya. The fate of his mother is unknown. (Death? Divorce? Abandonment?).
During the days that Dmitriy is in town, relations get more complicated. Dmitriy and Lilya are intimate; the implication is that this sexual encounter is not the first. This secret relationship comes to a head at an outing with friends.
One of Nikolay’s associates invites the lot of them on an outing, a celebration of his recent birthday. They congregate in the countryside for target practice, drinking, and eating. One of the kids stumbles across Dmitriy strangling Lilya. Iin actuality, they are having sex.) Shots are fired. The party clearly ends on a down note.
Dmitriy ends up beaten up, Lilya attempts to go back to Nikolay, and Nikolay tries to accept it all. The brothers never speak again. Roma, the son, doesn’t accept it, and Lilya succumbs to the situation, taking her own life.
Meanwhile, the attempt of Dmitriy to blackmail the mayor into giving his brother more money for his land is unraveling. Against his reservations, he enters a car with the mayor to “talk”. Instead, he is driven outside of the town and walked through a mocked execution. He abruptly leaves town.
The small town mayor, not one to be trifled with, sets his sites on destroying Nikolay. Known as a hothead, at the recent outing, others heard Nikolay threaten to kill Lilya. So her death was the perfect opportunity to frame Nikolay.
Leviathan shows what happens when ordinary people try to take on corruption. They lose their lives, their freedom, their family, and/or their belongings. The court system is a travesty. In different scenes, judges read legal statements in a monotone drone at a fast clip. Legal processes are followed but no justice is served.
The movie is a condemnation not only of the legal process and widespread corruption in Russia, but also of religion. The local bishop is a part of the corrupt system. He benefits from the political corruption. (Nikolay’s confiscated land will become the site of a new church.) He mouths Christian platitudes about God’s truth while seeing and not speaking up about the corruption.
Leviathan is well worth the watch. The scenery is beautiful—my favorites are of the cliffs over the ocean and of the beached whale skeleton. The acting is well done and believable. The destruction—both self-inflicted and imposed by powerful political and legal realities—is hard to bear. It is a stark reminder of what happens when corruption and power run amok.