I was fortunate enough to see a DCP of this film tonight at a local theatre, and was duly impressed by emerging auteur Yuriy Bykov's second feature. Bykov, who wrote, directed, co- starred in, scored, and edited the film, has turned in a sophomore effort that duly justifies his rapid rise to esteem in modern Russian cinema. Ostensibly an action film, "The Major" is really a bleak and uncompromising morality play, focusing on moments in time when characters have to make choices - and the slippery slope towards an event horizon where choices are then made for the characters on the basis of their previous decisions, regardless of their current feelings. Major Sergey Sobolev (Denis Shvedov) in particular stands out as a modern-day Raskolnikov, who in one split second sets off a chain of events that seemingly becomes irreversible.
The film opens with a moment of elation followed by a scene of unintended, but avoidable, violence which sets the tone for the rest of the picture. After receiving the news that his wife is in labor, Sergey speeds through a bleak, snowbound Russian landscape, carelessly passing other motorists. At a bus stop, a child begins walking away from his mother into the road. Moving too quickly to stop, Sergey honks his horn too late and swerves left - but the horn, and the mother's screaming, scare the boy, and he runs into the path of the car, being killed almost immediately. Sergey - seemingly in shock - looks around and appraises the situation. Then he begins to make choices. After a quick look, he makes no effort to save the boy; he locks the mother in the car, panicking, and takes her mobile phone when she tries to call out. He calls the station, and gets his friend Pasha (Bykov), at which point he is faced with another choice: does he take the consequences for his reckless driving, or with a wink and a nod, does he get the corrupt policemen he works with to cover for him? Of course, it is the latter choice, and with the arrival of Pasha and Merkulov (Ilya Isayev), an inevitable fate begins to set it - and the story begins to unfold.
Far from being the standard sort of mindless action drivel being pumped out of Hollywood studios by the likes of Michael Bay, "The Major" intelligently - and non-judgmentally - asks viewers at what point grey morality becomes black morality; at what point the results of a bad decision become irreversible and inevitable; at what point would the viewer themselves make the same (possibly immoral) choice. Without spoiling anything, this last question is devilishly well handled towards the end of the film. The film also asks what part loyalty plays, as it becomes clear that we're dealing with a group of coppers who cover for each other on a regular basis, on issues both mundane and serious. But the escalation of the situation, as the choices go from "good to not so good" right down to "bad or downright abysmal", is what truly drives this film; the action is merely a storytelling device that exists to impart gravitas to the thematic underpinnings.
The acting is superb throughout; Shvedov and Bykov in particular turn in wonderfully nuanced performances. Isayev is great as well, in an understated performance that conveys his lack of agency throughout. The dead child's parents (Irina Nizina and Dmitriy Kulichkov) are believable in their various stages of grief, rage, anguish, and finally acceptance. The rest of the cast is fine as well. The film is beautifully shot in such a way as to provide a constant, grinding sense of despair and grit - from the yellow-green tinged police station to the snow-swept landscapes. The cinematography might not rival Sven Nykvist's work, but it is well above competent. Bykov's score, while occasionally over the top, complements the moods well most of the time. The pacing is excellent, and the resolution of the film works very well.
It is worthy of note that, while this film gives the viewer plenty to contemplate, it does not emulate the metaphor-laden idiom that is characteristic of Russian cinema since at least Tarkovsky. The themes are fairly clear, and while the narrative is structured around an overwhelming web of decisions and consequences, the interpretations tend to be fairly clear. It is clearly of a different era and a different language than, say, Alexei Gherman's "Hard To Be a God", another 2013 Eastern Bloc gem. Highly recommended; I'd give it a 9/10.