Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin takes the ensemble premise of comedies like Death at a Funeral and replaces eccentric characters with some of history’s worst people. You probably won’t find it funny. You shouldn’t.

I walked into The Death of Stalin expecting a dark comedy. Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, and Jeffrey Tambor round out the cast, and the trailers showcased chaos, double dealing, and gross incompetence. What I got was a tale of horrible men doing horrible things to one another in pure, unbridled lust for power. I don’t know if director Armando Iannucci meant this trickery. I hope he did. I took this film as a slap in the face, one made very poignant with the current goings on in our own government. Stalin may be dead, but cronyism and disloyalty to the people are very much alive. I just don’t think this movie is going to preach anywhere near the right choir.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

The Death of Stalin
At least someone found this funny.

Josef Stalin has passed away, and immediately the wheels begin to spin as to who his successor will be. Those closest to him begin jockeying for power, and the race coalesces around two men: Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russel Beale). The frantic power struggle comes to a head on the day of Stalin’s funeral.

Unwelcome Characters Welcome

The Death of Stalin
The Bratva’s all here.

The acting in The Death of Stalin is probably its one highlight. A highlight that showcases lowlifes. Each character has an archetype: Tambor’s Malenkov is a craven politician, Palin’s Molotov is a fanatic constantly twisting in the breeze of his hypocritical ideology, and Jason Isaacs plays a brash, cock-sure army general. The two key roles, Buscemi’s Kruschev and Beale’s Beria are monsters: the latter brutal and the former ruthless. Each actor plays their roles as one note caricatures, and it almost allows The Death of Stalin to attain dark humor. Almost.

It’s All Fun and Games Until the Shooting Starts

The Death of Stalin
There’s plenty of tragedy+time, but I can’t quite seem to make it equal comedy.

This film never lets you write it off as satire or overblown absurdity: every one of these men are killers, either with a gun or a pen. The film never shrinks from the depravity of these power-drunk men. Murders are ordered, people are disappeared, and women are raped. When Beria absconds with a young maid during the purge of Stalin’s servants, I considered walking out. It’s a day by day accounting of men who built an empire on violence, and who consider anyone disposable. The odd joke here and there might have been meant to release the tension, but the tea-pot isn’t hissing in this film: it’s shrieking.

Message in a (Vodka) Bottle?

The only reason I stayed was inertia. I came to see this film, and while I didn’t get what I thought I was buying, I was curious to see if there was a point. I’m not sure there was.

The Death of Stalin
“Look! We’re on Celebrity Big Brother: Crimes Against Humanity Edition!”

If I’m being charitable, I’d say this film was trying to trick people into watching something uncomfortable on purpose. You came for Hitler on Ice; you got Schindler’s List. Maybe there will be some who see this film looking for a ruthless mocking of Soviet ineptitude and they’ll instead find some chilling parallel to today. Sure our sociopaths end up in front of Robert Mueller instead of a firing squad, but anyone watching the current events could connect the dots.

In the end, I can’t really recommend The Death of Stalin. It’s not entertaining, and I don’t think anyone who would watch this film needs its subtext. If you think we’re in a bad spot, The Death of Stalin isn’t eye opening. If you’ve got your head in the sand, well, this movie probably won’t dig you out. It only uses its shovels to make graves.

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