"Murder is strictly a capitalist disease."
Mood almost never works when it's wielded as a weapon. The best thrillers always let the mood grow up organically around the film, rather than attempting to overwhelm the audience into submission. Perhaps the biggest issue with the new film Child 44, based on the best selling novel by Tom Rob Smith, is that it bombards the audience with misery from the minute it begins. It would be like making The Lord of the Rings one film, where we get a brief prologue about all of the events that led to Frodo getting to the Black Gates, followed by two hours of him walking through Mordor until he finally just flings the ring into the fire and dies. That will hopefully give you some idea about the levels of misery in which this particular film is wallowing.
Set mostly during the early 1950s, the height of Stalin's reign of terror in Russia, the film follows Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a loyal and devoted member of Stalin's secret police who is alerted by a friend (Fares Fares) to the potential existence of a serial killer targeting children, specifically boys. Unfortunately, Leo's superiors, represented by a venom-spitting Vincent Cassel, refuse to believe that such a thing as a serial killer could exist in a Communist country with such a benevolent leader, so Leo and his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) are exiled to a remote industrial town. Here, Leo teams up with General Nesterov (Gary Oldman), who transitions from wanting to execute Leo for treason, to ultimately coming around to his side to help him find the killer.
As an exploration of the oppressiveness of a system that demands total conformism and compliance, the film sags a bit under its own weight. Those themes are there, but they're buried under a mountain of equally bleak, Kafka-esque scenarios. It's a credit to the cast that they surface at all, quite frankly, as neither director Daniel Espinosa, nor screenwriter Richard Price find those themes interesting enough to explore in any deep and meaningful way. Cinematographer Oliver Wood, who worked on all three Jason Bourne films, shoots the film in such an overwhelmingly dreary way, it recalls newsreel footage of actual gulags and concentration camps. It also very intentionally resembles Peter Jackson's Mordor from his Lord of the Rings films, a place where all who enter should abandon hope.
The only time Child 44 really seems to come to life is during its many brutally violent scenes. Espinosa shoots fists smashing faces and knives puncturing skin with such jarringly glee it borders on romanticizing violence. It's as if he got Rob Zombie to come in and shoot the fight scenes, which vacillate between nausea-inducing shaky cam master shots and lovingly framed close-ups of wounds and death blows. This would seem to suggest that the film is glorifying violence, but it's not. The only thing this film glorifies is hopelessness, and while that is certainly an inescapable fact of the time and place in which the film is set, it's the only thing Espinosa seems to really want to convey.
It's admirable, in a way, to not give in to the impulse to take a film about a child serial killer in Stalin's Russia and give it any semblance of hope, but all of the best films set in similarly desperate times found some sense of humanity to which they could cling. Here, the deck is stacked so futilely against anyone hoping to do good, that it's basically a long, slow slog toward an inevitable downer of an ending. And as for the pacing, I jokingly remarked to a friend after watching this that the title should have been Child 44 Minutes Too Long. There's only so much misery the human constitution can stand in one sitting, and while the film does an expert job of establishing mood, atmosphere, and despair, it often feels too much like it's celebrating it rather than looking for some way out.
God bless Tom Hardy, though. At the end of the day, his accent may be straight out of a Boris and Natasha cartoon, but there's next to nothing the man can't do. He is undoubtedly one of our greatest living actors and he gives this film a solid core it most assuredly would not have had without him. Reuniting once more with his love interest from The Drop, however, he and Rapace are curiously devoid of any real chemistry, which works slightly more in their favor here than it did in that film. Oldman does the most he can with what is essentially a glorified cameo, but the role pays him precious few courtesies. There's an almost non-stop parade of great actors in similar such roles, showing up for one scene, giving you hope that the film's about to get really good, and then disappearing before making much more of an impact than that. So it is with the aforementioned Cassel, as well as Jason Clarke, Charles Dance, and Paddy Considine.
After giving Hardy a bit of a ribbing for his accent, it would only be fair to point out that the accents are atrocious across the board. It's part of the reason why so much of the drama doesn't work, because the film hamstrings its actors with these ridiculous Russian accents. In fact, it's indicative of Child 44's overall problem of missing the forest for the trees. From what I've been able to gather from those who've read the book, the film bungles its reveal of the killer, leaving out a crucial element of his backstory that would have brought the story's themes full circle. Instead, we're left with a film where the centerpiece action sequence involves our hero chasing down a lead, following him through a series of suspenseful twists and turns, only to have him declare the whole thing "a complete wash." I couldn't agree more.
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]