The Banishment: Movie Review
The Banishment, the second film by director Andrei Zvyagintsev, paints a dark and brooding portrait of a dysfunctional family spiraling towards total breakdown. Shown at the Santa Barbara International Film it stars Konstantin Lavronenko, Aleksandr Baluyev and Maria Bonnevie. With deliberate pacing it places you at the very centre of the drama and rewards your patience with exquisite cinematography.
Unfortunately, having entranced the audience for the first two hours of his 150 minute epic, Zvyagintsev simply didn’t know when to stop.The film opens with Mark (a burly Aleksandr Baluyev) racing through the deserted streets of a bleak industrial landscape, nursing an improvised tourniquet around his arm. He staggers into the home/workshop of his brother Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko) and, refusing professional aid, demands that his brother dig out the bullet. With tools sterilized with a blow torch and a swig of industrial alcohol to dull the pain (let alone his eyesight) the job is done. The brothers proceed to discuss work and their deceased father’s house – apparently this minor surgical moment isn’t enough to deflect the course of everyday conversation. On his brother’s advice, Alex and his wife and two children take a train out to the paternal abode where a terrible secret (they always are) is revealed. The rest of the film sifts though issues raised from trust, betrayal and the pain caused by an inability to communicate with those closest to you, leading to tragic consequences for all involved.
To call the film slow would be a disservice. It is glacial, perhaps tectonic, in its delivery. They say a watched pot never boils and at times the audience might be left thinking that the same might be true of this film. But just when you think you’ve slipped into Wong Kar-Wai territory one of the rare moments of action erupts. These sparks, when they do come, are so startling that they payoff is always worth the wait and the relief almost tangible. That is not to say that the parts in between are simply periods of tedium, the audience waiting for the slow crawl to the next moment of revelation. Zvyagintsev fills the spaces in between with beautiful countryside vistas, lush and verdant in deep contrast to the bleak industrial cityscape that the characters have left behind. As the plot twists and turns like the road from the oft-visited cemetery Zvyagintsev brings the heavy stone walls in closer and blinds Alex and the audience with rainstorms, dirty windows and selective shallow focus. Sound too plays a strong role in the contrast between the natural and the man-made, with the delicate sounds of nature often assaulted and beaten back by the rumble of engines and heavy machinery. His actors, in particular Baluyev and Lavronenko, inhabit the world flawlessly, although Bonnevie adopts a strange bug-eyed expression for part of the film, making it appear that someone is slowly turning the handle on an invisible vise they have placed upon her head. The film is, without a doubt, beautiful to behold.
In the end it is a lack of trust in the audience that lets the film down. Enough clues are scattered throughout the first two hours to provide the audience with enough to deduce the sting in the movie’s tail. Zvyagintsev does not credit the audience with enough intelligence to make the leaps required and spends the last twenty-plus minutes hammering his point home with a reenactment of events past. It is unnecessary, even insulting, and it turns the end of the film into a weary trudge rather than the sharp snap it needed. The last moments of a film leave the strongest impression and this one has a bitter aftertaste. It is a terrible shame but it undoes all the hard work of the previous two hours.
So do I advise you commit the time to watching this uneven epic? Absolutely, but with one caveat; watch the first two hours, until the realization of the true horror of what has occurred hits home and then, very quietly, sneak out of the theater. Trust me as much as Zvyagintsev distrusts you and you’ll be rewarded with two gripping, beautiful hours of Russian cinema at its finest.