Every sound in “Leviathan” is a shuddering staccato. Every visual wears darkness like a cloak. With absolutely no context, there’s no awareness of what’s up or down. When it is promoted, the ads will suggest “Leviathan” is a documentary, and a scan of the press notes will reveal exactly where the film is set, and what’s taking place onscreen. But those peripheral elements are not the text, they are distraction. The experience of “Leviathan” is wholly singular, without context, enveloping and immersive. In some ways, it might very well be the most terrifying picture of the year.
The very first images of “Leviathan,” which features no narration or orchestral score, are defiantly Lovecraftian, unknowable in the extreme. A vessel at sea flings its limbs into the water, slithering and sliding into each other, the soundtrack alive with the slapping sounds of water against the hull. The ship’s slithery tendrils, which flail wildly, almost operate on their own, free of any master, dancing about the ship’s deck violently, against the legs of what we are to assume are human ship-dwellers. Even that seems uncertain: our vision obscured by the rocking ship, the pouring rain, and excessive waves, these figures wear full-body uniforms with bulky boots and mysterious hoods. Ridley Scott visualized humanity’s engineers as naked, hairless bodybuilders in “Prometheus“: even sans sci-fi trappings, “Leviathan” feels more accurate and more frightening.
Fish are dragged out of the sea and onto the deck, collapsed onto each other by the hundreds. The camera (if it is a camera) captures their helpless open mouths, the distant expressions on these carcasses wordlessly illustrating the dominance of one species over the other, and how the victors have absolutely zero interest in the creatures which they have conquered. Fish heads detached from their bodies are merely sprayed off the boat, some remaining to spin in circles helplessly, God’s cruel joke.
We’ve seen this sort of footage before—it was almost a mini pop-culture event when one of the crew members on the series “The Deadliest Catch” passed away. But this raw, this cold, this borderline alien—it almost feels like an assumption to state that this footage takes place on Earth. If you told “Leviathan” viewers that it was material captured from the average day on an alien planet, with its odd wardrobe draped over humanoid beings, it’s unrelenting darkness, and the harshness of the atmosphere, it wouldn’t be a difficult theory to accept. Of course, even what it is—a document of a brief period on Earth—seems far-fetched to us, even if that’s essentially how it would be presented to an otherworldly being. Send a copy of “Leviathan” to invading aliens, see if they stick around for long. Hopefully they have Blu-Ray players.
The few quiet moments we share with the inhabitants of the ship are spent observing them anthropologically. Less attention is spent on their faces—weathered, beaten, bearded—than it is on their skin tones, blemishes, and aggressive tattoos. These tattoos especially tell a story. The few things we hear these shipmates say in the early goings are through a loudspeaker, where, terrifyingly, the only words we can make out amongst what sound like barks are repeated “No’s”. Once we do hear them talk, we’ve already learned so much from their musculature, their bruises and wrinkles that the short phrases they exchange hold no revelatory information.
Taken at face value, “Leviathan” can feel like a bit of a farce. Here’s a dead-serious, unbearably intense look at a harsh blue collar life so abrasive, and so obtuse, that’s destined to be played in arthouse cinemas to higher education-pursuing students and upper-class citizens in big cities. This writer recollects a viewing of the intense, but very low-key drama “Breach” with an actual former FBI agent, who remarked, “Yep, that’s exactly how it was in the FBI.” He then added, with a shrug, “Fuckin’ boring.” It’s doubtful anyone who has actually taken a job like the one seen in “Leviathan” would be open to watching the picture. But that’s exactly the point of a late scene where one of the men settles in after a rough night, and quietly and indifferently watches television, shifting into sleep mode as indistinct high-energy commercials play. Some visit the clutches of the “Leviathan,” but those in its grips understandably have little desire to return. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review the New York Film Festival in 2012.