×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The River’

A darkly sparkling, studied, surreal tale of a Kazakh boy and his brothers whose sheltered lives are upended when a worldly cousin visits.

Director:
Emir Baigazin
With:
Zhalgas Klanov, Zhasulan Userbayev, Ruslan Userbayev, Bagdaulet Sagindikov, Sultanali Zhaksybek, Kuandyk Kystykbayev, Aida Iliyaskyzy, Eric Tazabekov (Kazakh, Russian dialogue)

1 hour 53 minutes

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.

Film Review: 'The River'

Reviewed at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, Nov. 25, 2018. (Also in Venice Film Festival - Horizons.) Running Time: 113 MIN. (Original Title: "Ozen")

Production: (Kazakhstan-Poland-Norway) An Emir Baigazin, Norsk Filmproduktion, Madants production. (Int'l sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Producer: Emir Baigazin. Executive producers: Aigerim Satybaldiyeva, Hilde Berg.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Emir Baigazin. Camera (color, widescreen): Emir Baigazin. Editor: Emir Baigazin. Music: Justyna Banaszczyk.

With: Zhalgas Klanov, Zhasulan Userbayev, Ruslan Userbayev, Bagdaulet Sagindikov, Sultanali Zhaksybek, Kuandyk Kystykbayev, Aida Iliyaskyzy, Eric Tazabekov (Kazakh, Russian dialogue)

More Film

  • Black Panther

    'Black Panther,' 'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Westworld' Among Costume Designers Guild Winners

    “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” walked away with top honors at the 21st annual Costume Designers Guild Awards Tuesday night, the final industry guild show before the Oscars on Feb. 24. “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” are up for the Oscar this year, along with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Mary Poppins [...]

  • WGA Writers Contract Talks

    Talent Agents, WGA Achieve Progress in Second Round of Talks

    Hollywood talent agents and the Writers Guild of America have achieved some progress at their second negotiating session over agency regulations, according to sources close to the talks. The two sides met Tuesday, two weeks after their first meeting resulted in both sides criticizing each other, followed by the WGA holding a trio of spirited [...]

  • Aaron Paul

    Film News Roundup: Aaron Paul Honored by Sun Valley Film Festival

    In today’s film news roundup, Aaron Paul is honored, Bruce Berman is re-upped at Village Roadshow, and Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher get a book deal. FESTIVAL HONORS More Reviews Berlin Film Review: 'Flesh Out' Berlin Film Review: 'Marighella' The Sun Valley Film Festival has selected Idaho native and three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul as [...]

  • Olivia Munn]EMILY'S List Pre-Oscars Brunch, Inside,

    Olivia Munn Says Brett Ratner Called Her Before His 'Howard Stern' Apology

    Olivia Munn is setting the record straight about standing up to “Rush Hour” director Brett Ratner, whom she alleges sexually harassed her over a decade ago. During a panel discussion at the Emily’s List pre-Oscars brunch at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills Tuesday morning, Munn revealed that Ratner called her in 2011 after he denied [...]

  • Flesh Out review

    Berlin Film Review: 'Flesh Out'

    Ignore the awful English-language title: “Flesh Out” is an emotionally rich, sensitively made film about a young woman in Mauritania forced to gain weight in order to conform to traditional concepts of well-rounded beauty before her impending marriage. Strikingly registering the sensations of a protagonist living between the dutiful traditions of her class and the [...]

  • Marighella review

    Berlin Film Review: 'Marighella'

    Does Brazil need a film that openly advocates armed confrontation against its far-right government? That’s the first question that needs to be asked when discussing “Marighella,” actor Wagner Moura’s directorial debut focused on the final year in the life of left-wing insurrectionist Carlos Marighella during Brazil’s ruthless military dictatorship. For whatever one might think of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content