It's a two-character psychological thriller that seems all the more spare against the Arctic Circle's vast terrain. Even amidst hungry polar bears and a harsh landscape, says Kimberly Gadette, it's man who poses the deadliest threat.
After a meteorological apprentice program like this, college grad Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) will probably think twice the next time he volunteers to do some work in the desolate land of the midnight sun.
As stated in the press notes (the film itself being oddly vague about who Pavel is or why he's there), the younger man is spending his summer under the tutelage of the gruff Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) at a remote weather station in the Russian Arctic. When the movie opens, Pavel has obviously acclimated himself to the routine, appearing quite capable as he handles the daily duties of checking numbers and reporting in to faceless others via rudimentary radio transmissions. Pavel seems so confident that Sergei isn't at all concerned about leaving his apprentice alone for a few days while he runs off on a fishing trip, in the hopes of capturing a few bushels of tasty Arctic trout. He tells Pavel to cover for him, and off he goes.
In perhaps the most expedient scene in this untenably leaden 130-minute visit to the far northeastern reaches of Russia, Pavel suddenly gets word that Sergei's wife and child have had a severe accident and are in grave condition in the hospital. Though it's pressing that Sergei's superiors speak with him immediately, the apprentice has to continuously lie on Sergei's behalf. As time goes on, and even upon Sergei's return, Pavel finds himself unable to relay the bad news. Simply put, he's afraid. He's already witnessed Sergei's hot temper, understanding that it needs little provocation to flare into action. Plus, Sergei had previously recounted the weather station's history of murder and mayhem, provoked by otherwise mild clashes between earlier resident meteorologists.
The longer Pavel keeps silent, the worse the situation becomes ... and yet he's unable to find a way out.
While the scenario is rife with fascinating possibilities, the film's glacial pace eventually immobilizes the film. A filmmaker more adept at his art might have succeeded in showing us tedium without forcing us to feel the same. We don't need to witness Pavel holding a flare against the sky until it extinguishes in real time. It's a gorgeous shot, beautifully framed, but after we appreciate it, and then appreciate it some more ... we are reminded that there's a reason that we go to the theater to watch moving pictures instead of stills. Ditto the close-up on Pavel's agonized face as he sits by the radio, frozen with the realization that there's no easy way out. "Frozen" being the operative word ... perhaps there's a problem up in the projectionist's booth?
Meanwhile, writer/director Alexei Popogrebsky gives us no backstory. Why is Pavel there in the first place? Who is Sergei, and why has he chosen to live away from his supposedly loving family? Even with the two-plus hours, Popogrebsky squanders the opportunity to explain just what these men do up there in the polar wasteland. We can glean that they're taking measurements and readings that might have something to do with isotopes, but what it all means, and how it could affect their careers, the country and/or the planet, is never examined.
One of the film's most stirring highlights is cinematographer Pavel Kostomarovk's work, allowing us the wide and uninterrupted vistas of this particular peninsula of Chukotka, Russia. Given the fact that the sun never officially sets, we experience this strange, brief summer bathed by an often pastel light that doesn't so much come to a day's end as blur into a slightly darker hue.
If only the filmmaker and editor Ivan Lebedev had sculpted these amazing shots into a better film, replete with tension, pacing, character, even a subplot. Oddly enough, aside from the excruciating moments that seem to go on without end, we suddenly experience a quick cut that makes no sense. One minute, Pavel is charging down a mountain at top speed, ultimately slipping and falling on a patch of ice. Next minute, he's lying face up at the bottom of Sergei's fishing boat, the newly-caught trout surrounding his head. Wow ... what a rescue we didn't see.
Problems aside, the two actors acquit themselves admirably. Looking like the Siberian version of a James Dean meets James Franco, rocking out to the music in his headphones, Dobrygin impresses with a strong screen presence that belies the fact that this movie signifies his film debut. As the ursine Sergei, sporting an ever-present sneer beneath the 5 o'clock shadow that's prematurely graying his face, Puskepalis is at once a murderous threat and a loving family man.
How did the filmmaker end this summer ... that is, when it did indeed come to a thankful conclusion? He completed it with an aching crawl giving way to a shamble ... all the while furnishing us a sharp sense of regret for the fine film buried somewhere underneath the tons upon tons of tundra.
Rating on a scale of 5 "hoars" of a different color: 2.5
Release date: US: 28 January 2011 (ltd); UK: 8 April 2011
Written and directed by: Alexei Popogrebsky
Cast: Grigory Dobrygin, Sergei Puskepalis
Running time: 130 minutes
(Russian with English subtitles)