The movie begins with the sounds of crashing waves and heavy machinery whirring and cranking. You can’t see anything, but then there are a few flashes of orange. Slowly, the images become less abstract, but still hard to decipher. You suddenly realize you are at sea, on a fishing trawler and the haunting, almost apocalyptic noise does not represent imminent danger but business as usual for the fishermen off the New England coast. You see ropes being pulled back out of the water and then a huge metal crate bursts from the sea, flying straight towards the camera. It hits the trawler with a mighty clang and the camera wheels around it. Then you realize that the film is twenty minutes in and not a decipherable word has been spoken or face shown, and yet you are mesmerized.
Leviathan takes fishing as its subject and, with incredibly mobile camerawork and expert sound recording, shows the process of fishing and its immediate effects, from unloading the fish from the nets, to decapitating them, to the guts and heads falling like sewage back into the sea, to the seagulls picking fish viscera out of the water. There was barely a word of context as the camera shoots around the trawler or looks out onto the sea. The film’s title is a reference to the sea-monster, but such a portentous title need not have been used to guide the audience towards seeing the trawler as somehow monstrous. The film makes otherworldly the everyday, the mundane reality of the fisherman made to look Herculean, sinister, surreal and, in a few sequences, mundane.
The camerawork often seems impossible; the filmmakers refusing to show how certain shots were filmed. It rides on the side or on the bow of the trawler, dipping in and out of the water. It hangs off the trawler in vertigo-inducing shots, often appearing as if it has fallen over. One shot follows a bird trying to get at the fish in extreme close-up while another shot is from inside the pen, the dead fish sliding in and out of the frame as the trawler rocks on the waves. As a visual tour de force, Leviathan may be unparalleled and many of its images are incredible, haunting and beautiful. The film also has a fascinating and evocative soundtrack, which often provides more context than the images – although it seems to have been subtly manipulated in post-production.
Leviathan though, in my opinion, is not without precedent – it initially recalls such films as the tiresome Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow and the downright infuriating El Bulli: Cooking In Progress. The process is the focus, rather than the humans involved or the consequences. Leviathan shows us what fishing means, how it is done, but it doesn’t consider the fishermen as humans (if a human appears it is only to represent how boring and repetitive parts of the process can be) nor does it address the politics of fishing, which is already controversial. This is ultimately where Leviathan disappoints.
Where the film suffers is in its length. Even at the relatively slim running time of 87 minutes it feels overstretched and, in the second half, the filmmakers seem to be struggling to find any more interesting places to put their camera. The shot wherein the camera is placed on the ship’s bow is fascinating, but it adds little. Similarly, the film’s long shots showing the assembly line nature of some of the fishermen’s jobs aptly speak of both the repetitiveness of the job but also the filmmakers’ self-indulgence. Worse still is a very long shot of one fisherman watching bland television advertisements, which obviously speaks of the boredom of a life at sea, yet is wholly undermined by the incredible imagery that has preceded it. A shot late in the film wherein the camera is placed on the ship’s mast is most telling of the filmmakers’ dwindling ideas since it is self-consciously and artfully composed and, therefore, speaks little of the experiences of the fishermen. While the film’s first half succeeds on visual power alone, it soon becomes evident, as the film plays on, that the filmmakers don’t really have a point to make and that they are running out of things to say. Leviathan ends up resembling a catch-all – any image or sequence that can be included is, and the film is not held together by any unifying themes or logic. It ends up being little more than a celebration of the virtuosity of modern camera technology.
Leviathan is, thus, fascinating, beautiful, awe-inspiring, haunting and, ultimately, rather boring. It is not so much that the visuals become less incredible as the film goes along, it is more that they increasingly come to lack purpose. They become mannered and self-conscious, as if the wish to present an elemental study of life on a fishing trawler gave way to a search for more and more strange imagery. Eventually, Leviathan ceases being a documentary and becomes merely the work of a camera-enthusiast who likes odd angles a little too much.