Very few documentaries offer up enough room for experimentation quite like the realm of non-fiction cinema. Be it the rise of cinema verite thanks to films like A Married Couple or the sudden influx of director-focused issue documentaries like the great Supersize Me, documentary cinema has been the name of the game for directors looking to tell true stories in exciting and vital new ways.
And then there is a film, if you can even truly call it that, like Leviathan.
From the pair of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, the film is an odd cookie to try and describe. Set entirely aboard a fishing ship just off the shores of New England, the piece is entirely free of dialogue, but not of narrative. A stunning meditation on the mechanical nature of this world today, Leviathan is impossibly gorgeous, ultimately one of the most thrillingly visceral documentaries in the medium’s recent history.
From the directors behind such documentaries as Sweetgrass, the film is possibly the most impactful audio and visual experience you’ll have all year. Taking off from where that picture aesthetically left off, the film’s muted sense of sound matches perfectly the beautifully bleak aesthetic crafted here, with each color becoming a washed out memory of a world full of danger, violence and simplicity.
A horror movie as much as it is a documentary, the film itself isn’t entirely frightening, but the tone set here by the film crew (especially the cinematography also done by Castaing-Taylor and Paravel) is so bleak and truly disturbing, that not a single frame of this film will be easily forgotten. Be it the blunt ease with which fishermen dissect the bodies of the fish they’ve harvested, or the violence with which the ocean throws itself at the ship and its passengers, Leviathan is a film that aspires to have a grand sense of danger and dread, and more than hits those notes.
That said, it’s admittedly obtuse. Best described as a voice-less montage of single shots, the film won’t amount to much for those unwilling to engage with it intensely. Tossing anything remotely resembling a narrative out with the scraps of fish its characters tear apart, Leviathan has grand themes on its rather subdued mind, but doesn’t go about saying a single thing, literally. For many this film will be nothing more than a series of images, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, you won’t find a single image more gorgeous than any given frame that this film has to offer up.
Brazenly experimental and the definition of visceral, Leviathan is truly unlike anything the medium of documentary film has offered up before. A logical step forward for a team involved with a film like Sweetgrass (an equally breathtaking meditation on the flow of life), this film is both the epitome of a non-fiction film, and yet completely outside of the box for anything, documentary or not. Featuring some of the best photography of the last few years and sound design that, if this world is right in any way, will win some sort of award later this year, this may very well be the very best film of what is still a very young year. It may very well be the best thing film has given us in a longer period of time than that, even.