For the third time in as many films, Kazakh director Emir Baigazin has made the arid, disquieting coming-of-age story of a teenage boy called Aslan his subject. But it is not the same boy, and though the stringent, clinical perfectionism of the aesthetic is unmistakable, this is not the same film. “Harmony Lessons” and “The Wounded Angel” may have established the preoccupations of this self-described trilogy, but “The River” is a downstream delta where those ideas spread and swirl in compelling, sometimes creepy combination.
This time Aslan, played by Zhalgas Klanov with substratum intensity, is the eldest of five brothers. This makes him the de facto boss when his stern taskmaster father (Kuandyk Kystykbayev) is not around, which is often. His mother (Aida Iliyaskyzy) is a peripheral presence, sometimes murmuring a few of the hard-bitten script’s gentler words, but more usually slipping through the door frames of which Baigazin’s camera is so fond, her bare feet scarcely making a whisper on swept floorboards. And so Aslan essentially oversees his brothers’ simple lives in this isolated part of rural Kazakhstan: the work of tending to scrubby crops and meager livestock, and of tamping together bricks of wet mud and leaving them to bake in the sun. And he also sets the rhythm of their play, with naïve games of tag, and the occasional trip to the river, a malevolently sparkling body of opaque blue-gray water that Baigazin, also DP, often shoots in an oppressive, horizonless flat shot, as though drowning the frame for want of air and sky.
So far the lives of the boys seem so biblically spartan, accentuated by burlap costuming and a bleached-bone palette, that it’s as much of a shock to us as to them when the modern world intrudes. Indeed it’s the first hint we get that the film is set in contemporary times, and that when Aslan’s father mentioned building this house far out to keep his family safe, he meant safe from modernity.
The intruder is their cousin, Kanat (Eric Tazabekov), and if there’s one misstep in Baigazin’s otherwise supreme control, it may be in the exaggeration of Kanat’s outsideriness: Clad in a flashy silver jacket, green hat, and fluorescent yellow knee socks, he’d be an exotic alien even to children a lot more worldly than these. But for all his outlandish dress and manner, realistically enough, it is his wireless tablet that becomes the most coveted and divisive artifact of the 21st century for the boys. Under its spell, from which Aslan himself is not immune, the younger sons begin to chafe against their authoritarian father and against Aslan as his proxy, something the older boy notes with building alarm. And so when all six of them go to the river (that is rumored to grant wishes) and only five come back, Aslan has a choice to make between coming clean and forcing his brothers into a conspiracy. Loss of innocence is a staple of the coming-of-age film, but it’s unclear how much Aslan loses his, and how much he throws it away, the better to get a firmer grip on the power he sees slipping from his grasp.
Baigazin has always envisaged a harshly Darwinian element to the interactions between young boys. But here Darwin meets William Golding, as the boys turn on each other in increasingly craven and self-interested ways: less survival of the fittest than of the slyest. And not all the allusions are so canonical: The sterile environment that their father has established recalls Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth,” and starkly absurdist flourishes, such as the ceaseless brickmaking for an outdoor shed of uncertain purpose, give “The River” its glints of Paul Auster-ish post-modernism. Meanwhile, Aslan’s borderline Sentinelese reaction to the encroachment on his territory — a learned behavior — amounts to a pretty blistering critique of both isolationism and paternalism, and the way they perpetuate each other.
It’s a heady mix, kept ruthlessly in hand by Baigazin’s ascetic formalism and his exceptional craft, until an ending where, again, an unexpected, vaguely comical twist arguably undercuts the seriousness of his achievement so far. Still, the more-disposable-than-expected landing is neither the most important nor the most lasting aspect of this mordant and macabre allegory. Whatever humor there is in “The River” runs too fast and cold to make the parched terrain more verdant or forgiving, and the darker, stranger undercurrents hold much more sinister power than any surface sparkle.