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Dead Souls: "Alexey Balabanov's 'Cargo 200'"

By Eric Hynes | Indiewire January 3, 2009 at 3:10AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

Alexey Balabanov, the Russian director best known for foisting 1997's blunt, bracing, Yeltsin-era-defining thriller "Brother" upon the unsuspecting world, is back with a film jerry-rigged to reclaim international attention after a fallow decade since that breakthrough.

A loud, violent, morally unhinged cry during the dark days that followed the first Chechen war, "Brother" lurched forth as a crude but unmistakably honest attempt at laying Russia bare. Betrayed by the Soviet Union, picked dry by predatory oligarchs, impoverished by a devalued ruble, and maddened and dehumanized by a brutal, dirty war, Balabanov's nihilistic, gun-toting anti-hero effectively represented a human spirit reduced to mere, even ambivalent survival.

"Cargo 200," its title ostentatiously taken from a code word for military casualties during the ill-fated conflict in Afghanistan, and nominally based on a true story, posits another era of madness in mid-eighties, pre-Perestroika Soviet Union. Telegraphing dialogue, clumsily piling characters into city vs. country archetypes, and pounding away with two ham fists at everything in sight, Balabanov seems poised to make a powerful if laughably unsubtle statement in a sub-Sam Fuller tenor. But what exactly is that statement? Unremittingly bleak and unsparing of everyone on screen, "Cargo 200" plays the scold while luxuriating in politically placarded exploitation.

Two brothers take tea on a balcony, talking over the state of their lives, their faltering nation, and the conflict in Afghanistan. Alexey (Alexey Serebryakov), hangdog and decent, is a military official, while Artyom (Leonid Gromov) is a Professor of Atheism visiting from St. Petersburg decked out in thick frames and a silly furred sweater. The latter departs to visit their mother in nearby Leninsk, but his car breaks down along the way. Hiking to the nearest house in search of help, he quickly finds himself surrounded by a motley crew of cliched provincialism: the big, menacing drunk with homicide in his eyes, the puttering foreign lackey, the silent, resigned wench, and the leering mute. Convinced, of course, that he's stumbled to his doom, Artyom nevertheless drinks vodka with his host, debating the existence of God (his host mocks Artyom's atheistic fidelity to the communist party line) and gaining auto assistance from Vietnamese worker Sunka (Mikhail Skryabin). Though Artyom drives off unscathed (if plastered on homemade spirits) the subversion of expectations is only temporary. Artyom is merely a red herring.

Be comforted and confirmed in your initial fear: these hicks really are diabolical, they're just waiting for a virginal, well-heeled teen to walk through the door.
What then commences is a rather standard, suitably horrifying account of abduction, torture, violence, and extreme madness. Skeleton-faced mute Zhurov (Alexey Poluyan) proves quite verbal and adept once young Angelica (Agniya Kuznetsova) foolishly follows a shaggy-haired dreamboat into the rural moonshine lair. Zhurov also proves to be a police captain of Leninsk, recruiting his fellow officers to unquestioningly assist in his sick, senseless captivity of Angelica. He chains her to a bedpost in his clueless, toothless mother's house, and then dumps her dead military boyfriend on the bed next to her, all out of love, naturally.

In rather short order, with talky set-up and red herrings out of the way, Balabanov produces 2 rapes, 4 murders, 5 corpses, and 1 perfunctory religious conversion. For those drawn to such ghoulishness, the film's major, late-film set piece is a remarkable vision of depravity: Zhurov reads aloud a soldier's letters from Afghanistan as Angelica writhes naked and chained between two rotting, fly-stalked corpses, the mother contentedly watching variety shows and parliamentary hearings. Since no characters are functional beyond type, "Cargo 200" invites us to read its action allegorically, wondering about the moral and spiritual implications of a suddenly God-fearing athiest, a corrupt and murderous cop, a burgeoning, Westernized capitalist, a spoiled and defiled daughter of communism, and an ultimately just - and rifle-toting - Mother Russia.

Furthermore, we're tempted to transpose this horror/fable from 1984 to the present era, and think about parallels in Putin's Russia. But no matter how hard one squints, Balabanov's fable has no moral. It's an allegory without meaning and thus not an allegory at all. He just knows what buttons to push, and knows that if he puts Gorbachev on the black and white telly while a shotgun blasts someone's brains out in the next room, that we'll deduce that a powerful statement has been made. Empty violence as a sincere question is one thing, but empty violence masquerading as symbolism is just an opportunistic pose.

[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

This article is related to: In Theaters