[Editor’s note: The following is a guest review by Brian Watt originally posted in the members only section at Ricochet. It has been posted here with permission from author.]
Only a handful of theaters around the country are still showing the Ridley Scott-produced and Daniel Espinosa-directed Child 44. It is available for pre-order on Amazon and iTunes now, so should be released for sale or rental within a month. If you search for reviews of the film you’ll find a mix of opinions and several of them negative though IMDB does display an overall rating of 6.4 out of a possible 10, which isn’t that bad. Most critics and moviegoers have complained that as a thriller Child 44 is just not taut or thrilling enough and instead is too dark, brooding, oppressive and ponderous — essentially not akin to other flashier blockbusters in the genre – any of the films in the Bourne series or even more realistic and slow-paced spy thrillers that probably tread more closely to actual spycraft, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
If you want extreme car chases through the streets of Moscow, motorcycles racing over rooftops, explosions hither and thither or endless and preposterous martial arts fights where good guys and bad guys leap onto walls and do back flips and break each other’s kneecaps, then Child 44 will surely disappoint — though it does have three intense fight scenes, particularly one aboard a train, that all appear much more realistic and chaotic and less choreographed than anything you’ll see in a Bourne or Bond film.
It seems to me that the more salient reason Child 44 will disappoint is because it is not a spy thriller at all and I would argue is not intended to be a thriller but more of a detective story while also a graphic indictment of how dehumanizing communism is when practiced. The film is based on the Tom Rob Smith novel of the same name (which admittedly I’ve yet to read), but which I understand is loosely based on real-life serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, also referred to as the Butcher of Rostov or the Rostov Ripper, who was active between 1978 and 1990 and who sexually assaulted and brutally murdered 52 women and children that authorities know about in Russia, the Ukraine and the Uzbek regions during the latter years of the Union of Soviet Socialist states.
The novel and film instead sets its story, about the search for a serial child killer in 1952 during Stalin’s regime, where just like that friendly bar in Boston, everybody knows your name. Yes, the film is dark, brooding, oppressive and ponderous but then for those who have bothered to read the unexpurgated history about life under Stalin in the 1950s, they will know that it wasn’t really sunshine, sprinklers and salmon-colored Plymouths with pointy tailfins cruising suburban streets on their way to supermarkets stuffed with food or carrying nicely dressed families to Sunday services. I don’t care what some of those folks in Hollywood thought at the time who may have been smitten with Uncle Joe’s workers’ paradise.
The film follows a former high-ranking MGB (Ministry of State Security) officer and WWII hero of the state Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy – “Bane” in The Dark Knight Rises) and his wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace – Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, et al, Prometheus) who are sent to a backwater town in apparent disgrace and punishment because Demidov chose not to declare his wife a traitor to the glorious Soviet state. Demidov is assigned to the local town militia to serve as an aide to its security chief, one General Mikhail Nesterov (played by Gary Oldman).
Shortly after his arrival, a murdered and mutilated child’s body is found in a nearby forest and has all the signs of a previous child murder (Demidov’s godson) in Moscow. As Demidov and the wary and reluctant Nesterov begin to investigate the case, they find that dozens of similar child murders with the same tell-tale signs have been occurring for years and the killer may be someone with surgical knowledge who frequently travels on business by train to locales beyond his hometown where he finds other young victims.
Hardy’s performance dominates the film. His Demidov is at any given moment intimidating, threatening, brutal but occasionally vulnerable on the verge of emotional collapse. He’s as good, if not better than many of the top-billed actors plying their trade today and if he continues to choose his scripts well, will hopefully be conferred with several awards. Rapace, as Demidov’s wife also is excellent and her earlier fear and disdain of her own husband is very well played. You should note, that the filmmakers do not depict any children being murdered. The audience is only shown the killer luring them away and then shifting to other characters and scenes.
Unlike other thrillers, there is no ticking time bomb, or impending cataclysmic event that must be thwarted with mere seconds to spare. In Child 44 there is only the painstaking, methodical effort to find a serial killer while at the same time circumventing omnipresent security checkpoints, dealing with MGB backstabbers and bureaucracy and evading a vindictive sociopathic MGB colleague of Demidov’s, one Vasili (played by Joel Kinnamen – Robocop 2014, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) who has his own reasons to get even with Demidov.
The scenes of factories, homes, schools, offices, train stations in Moscow, Rostov and elsewhere and the cast of seemingly hundreds of extras do show a life of dark, muddy colors tinged with soot and grime. Everything about the film is dark and oppressive where people rarely trust one another — husbands and wives, family friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Thus, the film is probably one of the more accurate depictions of the post-war Soviet Union where people are snatched away in broad daylight or at night never to be seen from again (this apparently no longer happens in today’s Russia); where your neighbors might quietly turn you in to the KGB, MGB or other security agencies; where security officers are promoted one day and sent to Siberia or some hell-hole of an outpost the next. Though, if there was one glaring omission in the film, it was that it didn’t show the endless lines of people outside stores rumored to have actual food or goods of any kind. So, perhaps the film is not all that accurate.
After the film was previewed by the current Russian Ministry of Culture at about this time last month, the ministry and Central Partnership, the Russian distributor planning on releasing the film, issued a joint press release explaining why the film wouldn’t be released in Russia after all. The statement claimed the following (from Wikipedia):
“…that it (sic) received several questions on the film’s contents, primarily concerning ‘distortion of historical facts, peculiar treatment of events before, during and after the Great Patriotic War and images and characters of Soviet people of that era’. Russian minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky welcomed the decision but stressed that it was made solely by Central Partnership.”
“However, in his personal statement Medinsky complained that the film depicts Russians as ‘physically and morally base sub-humans’, and compared the depiction of Soviet Union in the film with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor…”
The fact that Russia still has a Ministry of Culture that can
strong arm influence kindly suggest a distributor withhold films that depict life under Stalin as dark, oppressive and brutal should be indicative about how far Putin’s Russia has come in regulating what Russians are permitted to view…as in ‘not very’.
For me, and based on what I’ve read by Soviet dissidents and other recent histories, everything about the film, its settings, its characters, the depiction of the security apparatus feels authentic. So, as a result, after watching Child 44, you may indeed feel a bit depressed and bludgeoned but then you should realize that at least you’ve had an opportunity to see just how suffocating life could be in Stalin’s Soviet Union, something that, for some reason, the Russian Ministry of Culture would prefer you not bother yourself about. The minister may be correct that the Soviet Union is depicted as Mordor…but then the overlords of Tolkien’s fictional Mordor never tried to camouflage its evil or present a false happy face of what it really was to the gentle folk of Middle Earth. It was at least more honest in that than the Soviet Union was.
For all its darkness and humorless narrative, I enjoyed the film and was very impressed with the performances but then I tend to be a dark and humorless sort of guy. So, now that I’ve set the proper expectation for you, you too may enjoy this methodical, dark and disturbing film about the search for a serial killer of children at large in Stalin’s CCCP. Just tell your spouse or your friends that it’s not exactly a family movie. I mean there are no musical numbers and it doesn’t even have a song performed by Celine Dion that will be nominated for an Oscar. Go figure. Anyway, do svidaniya for now, comrades.
[Brian Watt is a single dad living in Southern California with his special needs son. For over 30 years he has carved out a career in marketing as a writer, designer and creative director, as well as leading product teams to develop and release hundreds of consumer electronic products. He is currently President of Launch Directors, LLC, a marketing consultancy (www.launchdirectors.com). Brian is also completing his first novel, The Curious Globe of Cornelius Crain and editing a collection of his sometimes humorous political commentary and fiction, The Man In Lafayette Park.]