Review: ‘To Live’

A schlubby guy out hunting is forced to flee for his life through rough terrain when he meets a gangster on the run in nifty Russian chase pic "To Live."

A schlubby guy out hunting is forced to flee for his life through rough terrain when he meets a gangster on the run in nifty Russian chase pic “To Live.” An impressively confident feature debut for writer-helmer Yuri Bykov, maker of several acclaimed shorts, produced by mini-mogul Alexei Uchitel (“The Captive”), pic squeezes a lot into its taut running time thanks to polished craft contributions and subtle perfs from lead thesps Denis Shvedov and Vladislav Toldykov. Although the smart, eminently remakable script tussles with weighty themes and has very dark moments, pic’s never pretentious and could do moderate biz domestically.

Pudgy, middle-aged Mikhail (Toldykov) is hunting birds with his trusty pooch in the middle of the Russian nowhere when suddenly, a younger man named Andrei (Shvedov) comes running out of the woods, pursued by several armed, trigger-happy guys. When Andrei makes a beeline for Mikhail’s car, the only means of escape, Mikhail has no choice but to go with him if he wants to live.

The two men — the first an ordinary, solid citizen, the second a ruthless gangster — are forced to make their way together on foot when the car gets bogged down in a swamp. As they traverse fields, rivers and woods in search of civilization, Andrei becomes frustrated with Mikhail’s inability to keep pace and threatens repeatedly to leave him behind to be killed by the gangsters always at their heels. Predictably, the two eventually bond over swapped stories of their wives and children. However, Andrei’s unswerving determination to survive — even it means killing strangers and, in a highly dramatic scene, an innocent beast — ultimately alienates Mikhail, who’s made of kinder-hearted stuff.

Although other folk are encountered along the way, pic is essentially a two-hander carried almost entirely by the chemistry between character thesp Toldykov, with his small, childlike eyes in a kasha-pudding of a face, and strapping, charismatic Shvedov, a newcomer from legit. They make a sprightly albeit dangerous game out of the power shifts between the two characters, and convincingly meet the roles’ physical challenges.

Profanity-laced script by Bykov works perfectly well as a genre exercise, even if some twists seem a little obvious. Bykov’s helming has more finesse and bodes well for future projects.

Though pic was clearly made on a limited budget, tech credits are solid throughout, with special mention required for Natalia Schmidt’s propulsive editing. Score by helmer Bykov himself, who’s worked previously in music and as a sound man, ratchets up the tension without being intrusive.

For the record, the onscreen death of an animal caused consternation among press and auds when pic was screened in Sochi, but end titles aver that no animals were harmed in the making of the film.

To Live

Russia

Production

A Rock Film Studio production, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. (International sales: Rock Films, Moscow.) Produced by Alexei Uchitel, Kira Saksahan. Directed, written by Yuri Bykov.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Ivan Burlakov; editor, Natalia Schmidt; music, Bykov; production designer, Andrei Vasin; costume designer, Yelena Martemyanova; sound (Dolby Digital), Nadezhda Yarovaya. Reviewed at Sochi Open Russian Film Festival (competing), June 12, 2010. Running time: 74 MIN.

With

Denis Shvedov, Vladislav Toldykov, Alexei Komashko, Sergei Zharkov, Konstantin Strelnikov, Vladimir Sosnovsky, Sergei Belyaev.

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