★★★★★ We begin in darkness. There are flashes of light, and then noise. We hear chains rattling, the ocean pounding against the ship, the sound of gulls in the distance and the sound of men working. From it's first moments of sound design and cinematography we know we're in the hands of artists. Abstract artists, yes, but artists none the less.
Leviathan opens like a first person episode of Quantum Leap. It is dawn, we catch glimpses of the sun rising, but we've been dropped into another person's body. Our hands have blue gloves on and we're working on a commercial fishing boat.
We see things as the man sees them while he works. This is not a smooth documentary style camera, it's frantic, jerky, and moves as our host moves. We watch our hands pull chains onto the boat and then we throw a quick glimpse over our shoulder to see...what? We don't know, it's just a quick flick of the head to verify something or someone is in place and then we're back to the chains. The angles are funny sometimes, keeping us as off balance as these men must feel aboard this moving ship.
Throughout the entire film there's very little talking. Even when there are voices speaking, they almost sound muted, giving us time to think and process what we're seeing instead of focusing on facts and conversations.
This is cinema verite with an incredibly artistic visual eye and editing style. The cameras are everywhere on the ship and for the most part, the men forget they are there. There's only one scene where two of the men glance at the camera, annoyed at its intrusion in their work. It breaks the spell just a bit, but then the camera is forgotten again.
Unlike Gravity's long takes that capture the grace, beauty and infiniteness of space, here the camera is raw, ugly, colorful and sublime. The editing between shots is so skillful that some of the takes feel endless. Only a few times are we jarred from scene to scene.
Some of these long takes can sit on their own, and the action is enough to carry us through it, like when we watch the fisherman fall asleep in the galley. His eyelids grow heavier and heavier before our eyes. He is exhausted, and we hear the narrator of The Deadliest Catch coming from the television he's sitting in front of.
Other times, the camera remains still but water is splashing on the lens so frequently is distorts and changes the scene in front of us. Droplets bend reality and colors explode in front of our eyes. It's like an ever changing canvas.
Then there are the shots where the camera is mounted to someone, or being operated by someone, and the movement keeps the action in front of us, pushing us extremely close to the men, the fish, the sea, the sweat. Being so close we see images we don't understand. Sometimes scenes start so close that it's unidentifiable what we're looking at. The camera then begins moving through the scene until we finally understand what's been in front of us all along.
Though it's not a horror movie, Leviathan contains more blood and gore than any movie I've seen all year. Fish are beheaded, rays are de-winged with a machete, and buckets of blood wash overboard as if the ship itself is bleeding into the sea.
There are some shots in the dark, both at night and inside the ship, where you can see the limitations of the cameras, creating a pixelated, almost posterized effect. It does nothing but add to the wonderfully abstract feeling of the film.
There are few times when we get a wide shot of what's going on. For the most part we're seeing this world through close ups and extreme close ups with the occasional medium shot thrown in. Sometimes we're in so close the camera can't even focus.
This style is one that results in many unforgettable moments. There's the surprise of a starfish and the gulls which appear like ghosts in the night sky, illuminated only by the working lights on the boat.
This is a hard working crew, and the only downtime we're allowed to see is a brief shower and the aforementioned sleeping scene. At the close of that scene, once the fisherman nods off, the film cuts to black, and the credits should have rolled. But instead we get five more minutes of gulls flying and I'm still trying to understand why. To go to credits after the man falls asleep would have been a perfect end to the film, but the filmmakers deliberately go back to the gulls to make a point, though I'm not sure what it is.
The only other complaint I have about the film is the font used for the end credits. It's distractingly hard to read. But that's a minor point. Leviathan is a mesmerizing, hypnotic, haunting, film. It's a poem, it's an idea, it is art.
Footnote: Leviathan begins with the poetic Job 41: 31-33 which talks about the Leviathan, a creature unfathomable to man proving God's infinite knowledge. Whether the film is saying something about that or insinuating than man has finally conquered the deep and fishes it to our heart's desire is certainly something to think about, but I don't know if the film really connects those dots.