At this point, readers may guess, and guess correctly, that Leviathan will only appeal to a very specific type of viewer. (At the very least, prospective viewers should check out the trailer before committing.) Although the footage captured by Castaing-Taylor and Paravel is frequently stunning, free of traditional restriction of movement, and chock full of entirely unique angles of the fishing process, this is an exercise in patience for those who aren't interested in the film's specific aesthetic. From time to time, the sights and sounds of nature are all-encompassing in a way that justifies the heavy Bible quote that opens the picture, but more often than not, there's literally nothing going on in the film -- which is, of course, part of what the directors want the viewer to experience.
A peek at the filmmakers' resumes sheds some light on the film's unique style. Both work in Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is advertised on Harvard's website as supporting "innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography that deploy original media practices to explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human and animal existence." The goal of Leviathan (and the Castaing-Taylor's previous film, Sweetgrass, a documentary about sheep farming) is to immerse the viewer so fully into the environment the film is attempting to capture as to lose the barrier between film and reality. This is the truth, as thrilling -- or as banal -- as the real world will allow.
Personally, Leviathan's discoveries tend far more toward the banal than thrilling. Late in the film, the viewer is treated to ten minutes of one of the ship's crew sitting in the galley, watching a television we can't see. As an episode of "Deadliest Catch" plays, he actually dozes off in front of the viewer. Other visuals seem to have a pointed message, whether the directors intend them to or not; at one point, the camera focuses on an empty beer can among the haul, twitching in the wind. The brutality of commercial fishing is depicted without comment, showing the fishermen hacking the fins off manta rays and gutting fish that appear to still be twitching. Later, the camera sits on the deck, observing fish heads sliding back and forth, while a bird struggles to climb over a barrier to get at some free food.
There is certainly an audience for Leviathan. The style may not be in tune with my sensibilities, but there's no doubting that it's a strong and specific style. In several of the film's more evocative shots, a flock of seagulls hovers over the water, picking at some of the disposed fish guts thrown overboard. It's a beautiful sight, but it would be just as beautiful to me if it were surrounded by ten minutes of the best material from Leviathan as it is surrounded by 70 minutes of tedium.
The Video and Audio
Trailers for Neighboring Sounds, The Turin Horse, Our Beloved Month of August, Sweetgrass: The Last Ride of the American Cowboy, Museum Hours, and Night Across the Street are also included, as is an original theatrical trailer for Leviathan.