CIFF Review: Leviathan

In “Leviathan,” the water is stained blood red, guts and debris fly past our eyes, alien pods tower in outer space, chains and the sounds of a hacking machete engulf us and suddenly as we look up away from all this horror, white demons fill the darkened sky.

“Leviathan” is the most disgusting, terrifying horror movie of the year, but it’s an experimental documentary that haunts and enchants in its otherworldly images, sanctimonious tone and Earth-shattering noises.

It’s unlike any documentary I’ve seen, a gruesome look at the fishing industry that creates moods only and does not make a point. The screening I saw at the Chicago International Film Festival had many walkouts. Does it indulge in its terror? Yes, but only because it is mesmerizing.

By using miniature Go-Pro cameras that can attach to helmets, clothing or be tossed around and jostled wherever, “Leviathan” achieves fish-eye perspectives that no human could. The images it sees would not be thought possible on Earth. David Bordwell calls it “the camera as flotsam.” In our line of sight we can spot a mutilated fish head, a bird so close we can make out the expression on its face as it tries to climb into a barrel holding some stray fish parts, hands grappling at chains in otherwise pitch black vistas or buried beneath mounds of fish in a fresh catch.

Before long we’re hurled overboard, not just sloshing around in the water but swimming furiously. The camera sees water rushing past as though we were a fish, then leaping out from beneath the waves to see a swarm of gulls descending on the ocean for a meal.

Except we wouldn’t know what we’re seeing or how to feel if not for the over-powering sound mixing that cues us in. The images and sounds are actually sped-up to appear absolutely cataclysmic, and the blurring of the film’s edits behind this wall of noise and darkness gives the film an eerily trance like quality. David Bordwell again compares “Leviathan” to the Russian, avant-garde silent film from 1927, “The Man with a Movie Camera,” rendering “the action hallucinatory” and putting “the very boundary between one shot and another” into question.

What makes “Leviathan” work above all is that it operates purely on this metaphorical level. We see fisherman hacking the fins off sting rays with a machete, then disposing the bodies through portholes dribbling out blood into the water. What’s the purpose of this gruesome stuff? The movie doesn’t say; it just exists. There are no people identified here, but we get a sense of how next-to-normal this work is when one man is glimpsed dozing in front of a TV as we hear a commercial singing, “877-CASH-NOW!”

“Leviathan” is a cinephile’s movie. It is impressive in the notion that such a film can even be made. It does not make a statement. It is not educational. It is not easy to watch. It is even in love with all these ghastly images. But it is remarkable.

4 stars

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