Leviathan truly is a sight to behold, a purely sensory experience and one of the most visceral films ever made.

9.5 /10

Leviathan opens with a passage from the Bible, a fitting prelude to the immense scale of the 90 minutes that immediately follow. The film itself is far from an epic production though; Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel started out making a documentary on a Massachusetts fishing port but, after going out with one of the boats their focus quickly changed. The force of Mother Nature soon overtook them, with several cameras getting lost at sea.

That’s when the co-directors tried another tactic, one that ended up defining the whole film. Using tiny GoPro HD cameras, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor put them all over the ship, letting the fishermen use them and at times connecting the cameras to a stick so they could dunk it underwater. The result is a film that appears to be unlike anything before it, directed mostly by the elements rather than a human being. It wouldn’t have been too out of place if Nature itself had a co-directing credit.

Much like the cameras are at the mercy of the ocean’s thrashing waves, viewers are also left to endure a full-frontal assault on cinematic and genre conventions. There is no narrative or context given for the footage in Leviathan. The cameras move around in every imaginable direction, with some sequences having no sense of perspective or placement in them whatsoever. Long sections seemingly flow together, making it impossible to tell whether or not there’s a cut or transition buried within all the fury. The sign of a visible cut feels like a breath of air, as if we can briefly re-calibrate ourselves before getting thrown back in. If Leviathan’s lack of control shows the chaos of nature, it simultaneously highlights the chaos of film without a narrative.

Leviathan documentary

That feeling of not being tied down to anything, both literally and figuratively, is primarily what makes Leviathan such an exhilarating and terrifying film to watch. None of the moments throughout are as effective as when the camera goes out into the water, bobbing up and down as seagulls and fish remains from the boat surround it. These moments, when the camera comes up to the surface and shows nothing but water surrounding it, present the terrifying scale of the ocean in a way that’s rarely been seen before. Part of the anxiety comes from the brilliant sound design, mixing the sound picked up on the camera’s microphone to sound like someone gasping for air, but most of the horror comes from the feeling of complete insignificance it creates.

The cumulative effect of what’s in Leviathan is felt once the focus begins to include fishermen on the vessel. Actions become more abstract, with any sense of specificity sucked out from these moments. The focus is no longer on what they’re doing, instead merely observing bodies in motion. The fishermen, like the boat they’re on and the fish they take out of the sea, are small parts of a massive and unforgiving environment. Leviathan truly is a sight to behold, a purely sensory experience and one of the most visceral films ever made. It may only be three years in, but it looks like one of the decade’s greatest achievements has already been made.

Leviathan Movie review

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  • Smarten_Up

    Sorry but this filmmaker is full of it. The film is a waste of our good time, better spent sleeping than watching…

    Just because you are a Harvard professor and go out to sea and get wet and bumped around does NOT make your footage worth seeing. A real tough editing is needed here, such as when I ran this dvd at quadruple fast forward, reducing it to just a few minutes. Even then, some scenes should be deleted.

    Were they really surprised that all flesh food on the plate comes at a high price? Do all these film reviewers and their academic buddies never think about food, until they find themselves on the deck of a trawler? Hey !–HEY! that is real life–and real DEATH, get it Prof??

    Eat some vegetables if you are so guilty, but keep this stuff as a home movie; “What I Did on My Sabbatical…”

    Sound was unhearable, in fact frustrating, more informative as silent on fast forward! And that essay by Cyril Neyrat? Not only must it have been poorly translated, it was written in garbage-academese…sincerely hope no one got tenure for that!

  • Bil

    Hi smarten Up. It seems you did not enjoy this movie. Well, I enjoyed it, and for many reasons.
    See? It is actually possible.
    I found it oppressing and gruesome, as well as profound and poetic.
    The raw image and sound was quite delicious too. The “submerged” effect with these cameras… Hmmm, I like it.
    It is water, iron, wood and blood. What did you expect? Some of these THX effects or something?
    I’m not an “indie” culture consumer, usually. It may be possible that anything calling itself “indie” is full of it.

    But I know the sea, I know the fishermen. And in this movie, i find them again. True, terrifying and powerfull. Thats how Leviathan felt to me.
    I would recommand this movie to everyone who can stop thinking about the subject for an hour and a half in order to enter a vivid cinematographic universe, to anyone who is looking for a direct experience. May be confusing at first, I have to admit it. But the beauty is there.

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