By Kyle G. King. On a recent episode of the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s serial podcast The Close-Up, Noah Baumbach and Brian De Palma sat down to chat about, among other things, how great of friends they’ve actually become, and at great length discuss each other’s distinct styles of filmmaking. It’s pretty adorable.
At one point, De Palma goes off topic to beautifully describe how to properly frame a shootout scene by stressing the importance of laying down the geography of a set first, and how quick edits should be used to build action and never be taken for granted (Starts around 1:15:00 but the whole interview is well worth a listen). This style of storycrafting — big picture first to establish direction, then stylish details to build drama — is regrettably (and ironically) missing in Child 44. It’s a film that suffers greatly from a lack of unifying vision to help iron out the convoluted and complicated ideas that it pushes forward.
Richard Price adapts a flaccid screenplay based on the rich Soviet exposition found in the hit novel from British author Tom Rob Smith. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa is building momentum within the action-thriller genre with recent works Safe House and Easy Money being relatively well received, yet he fails orchestrate the finesse needed to properly organize the cluttered mess that is Child 44. With award-winning bullet points on their resumes like Gladiator and There Will Be Blood respectively, it’s disheartening to think that dual editors Pietro Scalia and Dylan Tichenor couldn’t pick up the muddled pieces, but as Mr. De Palma’s formula demonstrates, without a tempered approach Child 44 appears utterly directionless.
Set in the Stalin-era USSR of 1953 — though considerably influenced from earlier events like the Holodomor hunger campaign and the Nazi occupation of WWII — Child 44 presents a Soviet Union that prides itself as being “free from the capitalist disease of murder,” but remains drenched in antithetical greys, browns that lend to an overall culture of mistrust. So explaining the mysterious death of a young boy (found naked and mutilated among train tracks) as a mere accident comes easy to seasoned senior MGB officer Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel), who assigns war hero investigator Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) to deliver the official report to the boy’s parents. But as the tormented mother proves in her screams of injustice to a morally conflicted Leo (“A train does not undress a boy!”), the elephant in the room is the government’s failure to recognize the horrors of its past and present. It’s a denial that Leo, one of many children orphaned due to starvation during the Holodomor, relates to wholeheartedly.
Among the subplots that have nothing to do with the film’s title and serve to almost explicitly weigh it down pointlessly: Leo’s love-hate-trust-distrust relationship of his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace); the various dishonorable actions of rival MGB officer Vasili (Joel Kinnaman); and Leo’s edgy relationship with his MGB comrade Alexei (Fares Fares), the father of the boy killed at the train tracks. Instead of flowing as a singular tale of morality, Child 44 becomes a puzzling anti-ensemble piece.
When Leo refuses to properly investigate his wife (who seems arbitrarily suspected for crimes that are never really explained) they are both shipped away to a remote region far from their comforts of Moscow and into the hands of General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman). Here, Leo and General Nesterov uncover more cases of boys who have been murdered in a similar fashion, and both soldiers work to unravel the strings to find the person responsible (which seems pointless, as the movie unceremoniously exposes the killer in the second act). Instead of an effective whodunit, what we have here is a peculiar game of cat and mouse, where cats are distracted with wives and co-workers, and the mouse continues to kill young boys with impunity.
Even through a vapid script, absent direction, and occasional wincing Russian accents, Hardy and company do well to keep up a certain level of intrigue to keep you from leaving the theater, accompanied by exceptional production design and a contextual Russian score. Rapace and Hardy didn’t have much room in their previous film The Drop to truly work around each other, and if nothing else Child 44 works to rectify that.
Maybe the biggest misstep is Summit Entertainment’s poor packaging of Child 44: As neither an art house meditation on political espionage nor a summer powerhouse of big name stars, the film has nowhere to hide. It’s curious to think that the story might have had more breathing room as an HBO original mini-series, but its fate is most likely to be mirrored by the forty-four boys of its title, to be lost and long forgotten.