Movie Review: Child 44
New out to theaters (and barely warranting the plural since Lionsgate read the tea leaves and decided to only show the movie at a handful of theaters) is the glum thriller, Child 44. Marketed (once again, barely) as a crime thriller set in Stalin’s USSR, the film is more of a period piece: as in it sucks, period. Ponderous, sprawling, listless, and lacking any real direction, Child 44 will steal two and half hours of your life and make you wish you were on a train to the gulags instead.
Child 44 (2015)
Based upon the award winning novel of the same name, Child 44 is nominally about the hunt for a Soviet serial killer, undertaken by a pair of police officers who have run afoul of the powers that be because of their investigation. Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) is an up and coming member of the MGP, the Soviet political police who apprehend political malcontents and enforce Stalin’s reign of terror.
The film explores Demidov’s youth, where he survives Stalin’s starvation/genocide of the Ukraine by joining a Soviet tank brigade, and follows him through World War 2, where he serves with distinction in the Battle of Berlin. Though honest and hardworking, Demidov is not adverse to brutality, as he quickly transitions from a soldier into an agent of the state, hunting down dissidents, most of whom wind end up dead…or worse.
He has the respect of his superiors and the hand of the beautiful Raisa (Noomi Rapace), but internal politics and the jealousy of one of his co-worker causes both Leo and Raisa to be exiled from Moscow and sent to a work camp, where Leo learns that what he had assumed was an isolated child murder is in fact the work of a serial killer who has killed 44 children to date. Risking further punishment, Leo, Raisa, and the work camp’s superior officer (Gary Oldman) team up to catch the killer.
Lost In Translation?
The novel received wide critical praise for being tense, gripping, and good police procedural set during a turbulent era of political unrest. I can safely say the movie is none of those things. The pacing is rushed and incoherent in places, and ponderous and flaccid in others. We are taken on a roller coaster ride through Demidov’s back-story, which explains precious little about his current role as an MGP agent or his relationship to the vicious political ideology he is helping to prop up with his “police” work.
The story centers upon the relationship between Demidov and Raisa, and while the actors have an excellent rapport, their whole back-story is summarized for us over a toast and a glass of brandy. The movie bogs down with a section about Demidov and his soon-to-be rival, Vasili, chasing political dissidents (who are more than likely innocent) and spends more time on this subplot than on the actual main plot of a serial child killer. This shows us the state sponsored terror of the population, but takes an ungodly amount of screen time to accomplish – especially when the movie is supposed to be about a murder mystery and not “ten reasons why Stalin sucked.”
An hour into the film, you haven’t seen Gary Oldman once, and you’ve seen the killer exactly once. I was viscerally agitated by the pacing, and several times wanted to shout “Get on with it!” at the screen. I wouldn’t have bothered anyone by doing so, as the theater was pretty much empty.
Director Daniel Espinosa needs to work on his craft. His crude handling of the plot seemed rankly amateurish: the exposition is overdone and time consuming, important story points are glossed over, cultural and historical references that would ground the setting are left out, needless information is left in, and the whole turgid affair is uneven and poorly paced.
The capstone is an ending that beggars belief by containing an incoherent confession from the villain, a farcical confrontation between Demidov and Vasili, and a denouement that refuses to end. The movie was over, but Espinosa dragged the damn thing out by another goddamn 30 minutes just to give us a hackneyed sense of closure that the film didn’t warrant.
This film desperately needed to be edited down to a manageable size, but apparently the director was unwilling or unable to trim the fat. Two minutes of voice over work could have obviated both the first and last half hour of the movie, and made a much better film. In a story about a serial kille, Daniel Espinosa should have recalled the editing maxim: murder your darlings.
Everything in Child 44 is uneven. I’ve harped on the pacing and plot, but the cinematography and acting are just as culpable. The visuals are lush and beautiful in places, but are left to linger and repeat themselves. As my equally exasperated companion noted: “Oh look, another goddamn beautiful aerial shot of a train…and another…and another…” Once again, something needed to be cut, and this movie refused to do it.
Da, Comrade? Duh, Comrade.
Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace are capable actors doing their best with characters who are poorly written and not fully realized. The rest of the cast seems to be inhabiting one-note characters. Vasili is an overblown baddie, apparently capable of any villainy so long as the plot requires it. The Rostov Ripper is a non-entity for the entire film until he suddenly decides to shoot a word-salad of a confession at our hero. Gary Oldman’s character could have been played by a broom with a mustache. The broom’s Russian accent would have been better.
Speaking of accents, they were all over the place. Several characters sounded positively British (looking at you, Tywin Lannister!) whereas Tom Hardy’s accent was thicker than borscht. They needed to sit down and hash out who could and could not sound Russian, and then get on the same page.
Take the Next Train
This film is not good. It is almost completely without merit, and I felt aggrieved of the time it cost me to watch it. It fails as a thriller, as a period piece, and as a drama. The studio apparently felt the same way, and threw this bloated piece of cinema under the train, dropping it from many screens and putting no effort into publicizing it. They should have held this movie’s premier at a Red Box…and then pulled the plug on that particular Red Box machine.
One critic bemoaned the lack of adult fare at the cinema, attempting to hold up the failure of Child 44 as emblematic of audiences unwilling to invest in a story not focused on men in tights punching each other through buildings. If the answer to shallow superhero films is to make “adult” films as self-indulgent and boring as Child 44, I hope movies keep throwing people through buildings. Start with the director of this film.