A promise: This is like no documentary you’ve ever seen before. A caveat: It may be like no documentary you want to see. Brilliantly rewarding yet taxing too, Leviathan is pure cinema verité pushed to a radical extreme. Instead of one camera observing reality, scores of cameras – miniature HD models with tiny lenses – participate in reality, and force us, with queasy intensity, to join in.
Queasy, because the subject here is a commercial fishing vessel bucking through the unforgiving Atlantic off the coast of New Bedford, Mass. – yes, the very port from which Melville set sail the doomed Pequod in Moby-Dick. The parallel is deliberate. Starting with its quote from Job, that patron saint of long-sufferers, the film is dark in tone and sobering in intention. Anyone who subscribes to the romance of the sea need not apply.
The co-directors bring science to their art – Verena Paravel is a Swiss anthropologist, Lucien Castaing-Taylor a Harvard ethnographer. As scientists, they are strictly observers – there’s not a single word of narration, or a hint of exposition. Rather, what distinguishes and drives the doc are its multiple observation posts – chip cameras planted all over the ship (deck, hold, mast, prow) and on its occupants (wrist, arm, head and, yes, fin, tail, belly). The artistry lies in the editing, and what follows is a long night’s journey into a voracious harvest, a job-shadowing experience that’s both eerily abstract and viscerally raw, at once a meditation on mortality and a scary horror show. Here’s what we see and, just as important, what we hear.
At first, nothing, just a screen as black as the nocturnal sea. It’s the sounds that draw us anxiously in, a maelstrom of noise – the harsh metallic grinding of a ship at work, the pained whine of the hydraulic lifts, the howling winds, the surging waves. Then a quick glimpse of a gloved hand, which reveals itself attached to a hooded figure in a red slicker. Amid the inhuman cacophony, a human voice crackles over the vessel’s loudspeaker, but the words are unintelligible, and irrelevant. Almost every shot is an acute close-up – the dripping mesh of the raised net, a thick steel cable like a living tentacle – thrusting us deep into this strange realm but without the benefit of any distancing, calming perspective. It’s unnerving yet also compelling, like a dream floating on the cusp of nightmare.
The sea washes over an onboard camera and, momentarily in this underwater tableau, the noise gives way to relative quiet, to the water’s churn and flow. But even the silence feels dangerous – it’s the quiet of drowning. Up above again, the huge net encircles its catch, a gargantuan ball of suffocated fish dumped onto the oozing deck. A boot walks among the corpses, a knife decapitates with religious ferocity, a cigarette dangles from blue-cold lips – the hand is too busy to hold it. Down below in the hatch, another fisherman is separated from his flock. The lens lingers on a lone gull scavenging among the fish heads and struggling to escape its gluttonous trap.
By now, it’s abundantly clear that the Leviathan is the ship itself, a brutal machine in the wild garden of the sea. So the Leviathan is us, the agent of our appetites. And the men on board are just burly cogs in that machine. On an assembly line in some rusted compartment, three shuckers attack a trove of shellfish with practised speed. Tattooed on the massive upper arm of one of them, a bare-breasted mermaid dances to his monotonous tune. Later, the same man sits in the galley half-listening to a newscast from a far-off world, perhaps more civilized. The shot is held, until his head slumps to the side and sheer fatigue takes him to his own dream.
In Melville and Conrad, in every sea tale worth its salt, the ship becomes a microcosm. This tale is no exception. In the round-the-clock existence of a commercial trawler, life is hard and short, for the predators no less than the prey. So any honest documentation of that life must necessarily be hard to watch, and Leviathan, to its credit, often is. But it’s not without a terrible beauty too. The final shot is a literal bird’s-eye view that soars up to the hovering gulls, their white wings illuminating the darkened sky like starlight in the void. That culminating sight, much like this astonishing film, is gorgeously abstract and it’s brutally real – even in the dead of night on our highest seas, the sublime peeks through the slaughter.