Like Father, Unlike Son
Suspenseful new Russian film explores father/son relationships.
Thursday, April 29, 2004
Expect the unexpected in this rookie feature from Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev. It builds like a thriller in the accumulation of psychological suspense and its increasingly sinister atmosphere. But Zvyagintsev aims for a deeper emotional complexity than the standard thriller format allows, and his results are jarring, inconclusive, and absolutely compelling.
Andrei (Vladimir Garin), a tousle-haired youth of about 15, and his kid brother, Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) are drifting through an aimless childhood in the remote, empty landscape of suburban post-Soviet Russia. One day, their mother informs them that their long-absent father has returned, a man they know only from an old family snapshot. Father (Konstantin Lavronenko) is gruff and uncommunicative with an edge of belligerence, and their mother and grandmother are so subdued about his return, the boys don’t know what to think.
When Father abruptly hauls the boys off on a fishing/camping trip, the coltish Andrei struggles to be forgiving and accommodating, to pretend the family is whole again. But little Ivan is more suspicious, pestering their prodigal father for answers, pushing at the limits of his power and patience as the trip stretches out over extra days and into unfamiliar physical and psychological terrain, far from the safe world the boys know.
Zvyagintsev sets the story in a post-industrial landscape of almost science fiction-style barrenness: colors are washed-out, vistas are vast, bleak, scrub-covered flatlands broken up by little clusters of industrial housing—cement cinderblocks, chicken-wire fences, corrugated plastic, twisting metal staircases that lead nowhere. There never seem to be any people around, and as their journey takes them to the end of the mainland and across the water to a small, uninhabited island, the boys’ sense of isolation is complete.
Almost the entire story is told from the boys’ perspective (the one or two brief scenes that aren’t feel deliberately misleading in retrospect, the filmmaker’s one serious misstep). And the audience identifies completely with the boys’ mounting apprehension, for which Zvyagintsev can thank his remarkable young actors, Garin, with his tough-tender vulnerability, and little Dobronravov, whose permanent surly scowl is the film’s most emblematic image.
There are several ways the story might play out in a typical Hollywood thriller, but trying to second-guess Zvyagintsev and solve the “mystery” will only lead to frustration. Viewers seeking a tidy resolution had best seek elsewhere. Those who dare to ponder the imponderable, step right this way.
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko
(Not Rated, 106 mins.)
In Russian with English subtitles.