Film Review: Leviathan

Experimental documentary about fishing has its defenders, but will seem tedious and incoherent to most.

An experiment in what used to be called cinéma vérité, Leviathan received a mixed reception while making the rounds of last year's film festivals. An abstract portrait of modern-day fishing, it might make sense for adventurous venues. Anywhere else, this anti-documentary will drop like a stone.

Leviathan takes place mostly aboard a fishing vessel working off the coast of Massachusetts. The film shows groaning nets hauled onto decks, workers who decapitate fish or slice the "wings" off skates, torrents of blood flushed overboard, and plenty of machinery—chains, hoists, conveyor belts.

Co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor (who made Sweetgrass, a well-regarded piece about sheep and shepherds) teaches at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, where he is fashioning a documentary aesthetic based on open-ended, digressive storytelling. Fellow director Véréna Paravel worked on 2011's Foreign Parts, about junkyards and auto shops in Willets Point, near Flushing, New York.

Leviathan was shot with expendable digital cameras that were fixed to tops of masts, flung into the ocean, dropped into bins to be covered with fish—with predictably haphazard results. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel favor close-ups so extreme viewers can't be sure what they're seeing, and perspectives that are deliberately disorienting. Shots that are upside-down, for example, or perpendicular to the horizon. Their cameras often end up covering the least interesting elements of scenes, either behind or aslant of action. The frame is completely black for long stretches.

The soundtrack is largely industrial noise, with an audio clip lifted from what sounds like Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch." Leviathan has no voiceover, no identifying captions, no attempt to provide a context for what's unfolding on the screen.

Fifty years ago, vérité documentarians took a similar approach, believing it was more objective than traditional methods. But the better filmmakers of the time still offered strong narrative frameworks. This film has no discernible editing scheme other than to suggest that actions are sequential.

Occasionally an image will evoke abstract painting, or works by experimental filmmakers like Peter Hutton and Bruce Conner. And Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have their witty moments. They list the moon and the ocean in the cast, as well as the fish who are shucked, gutted, dismembered, crushed, discarded, and pecked apart by gulls in the course of the film. Leviathan opens with an oceanic quote from the Book of Job, and some viewers will recognize New Bedford, the ship's home port, from its Moby Dick connections.

But overall the filmmakers' "You are there" style doesn't make much sense if viewers can't tell what's going on. When it is visible, the work in Leviathan is boring, repetitive, monotonous, and not much better to watch, no matter how clearly dangerous it is. Perhaps the filmmakers consider this the antithesis of a nature film. It's not much of a documentary either, at least not in the sense of offering entertaining or useful information. But Leviathan may well be on the cutting edge of sensory ethnography films.