Released four years after his striking debut The Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Banishment (2007) is everything you'd expect from a sophomore film: it's larger, more ambitious, and occasionally self-indulgent. Clocking in at a deliberately paced but (mostly) earned 157 minutes, this grim and intensely visual drama immediately recalls the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, and other directors -- not surprising, since it seems to take place in the same period (late 1980s or early 1990s) that Zvyagintsev absorbed their work as a student.
The Banishment opens beautifully and introduces its small cast of characters in a natural, intriguing manner: the first person we see is a middle-aged man named Mark (Aleksandr Baluev) driving alone, barely nursing a gunshot wound after what we can only assume was a shady act. He's patched up at home by his brother Alexander (Konstantin Lavronenko) to avoid a hospital trip; soon after, Alex returns home to his sleeping wife Vera (Maria Bonnevie) and children, Kir (Maksim Shibayev) and Eva (Katya Kulkina). During a two-week trip to Alex's childhood home in the country, their seemingly peaceful vacation unravels after Vera reveals a secret to her husband. Unsure about the future of his marriage, Alex consults Mark but fears that anger and resentment will ultimately destroy what's left of the family.
This all takes place within the first 30 minutes and, on paper, may not feel like enough setup to justify the film's slow burn and somewhat excessive running time -- yet the way in which The Banishment unfolds before, during and after these establishing events is every bit as satisfying as the Zvyagintsev's debut film. It's absolutely drenched with atmosphere and filled with painterly compositions, long takes, and visual clues that seasoned movie lovers will appreciate: rather than bash us over the heads with cheap exposition, the film does an outstanding job "showing, not telling". Unfortunately, its final act doesn't quite stick the landing: the otherwise linear narrative is broken in an initially intriguing way, but the revelations learned during this 20-minute flashback aren't potent enough to warrant the twist. Luckily, The Banishment's obvious fundamental strengths are more than enough to salvage the entire production, from uniformly great acting to well-placed religious and political symbolism. This is hardly a sophomore slump from almost any perspective.
Unlike The Return, The Banishment never received a Region 1 release on home video; now that both have debuted on Blu-ray from Kino as of this week, it's a great time to get familiar with the director's early work. This package is similar in almost every respect, featuring a top-tier A/V presentation and several brief but thoughtful bonus features that peel back a few layers without revealing too much. Completely new viewers will want to start with The Return -- it's more accessible and well-balanced, just for starters -- but The Banishment is certainly worth digging into once you're ready.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this new 1080p transfer of The Banishment looks fantastic on Blu-ray -- and though I don't have one of the Region 2 DVDs for a direct comparison, this is likely a fresh scan of the original negative. The film's higher budget makes this an even more visually appealing production than The Return, showcasing muted but extremely striking colors and a great deal of detail and texture during close-ups and wide shots. Depth and black levels are outstanding, including dimly-lit interiors and even nighttime scenes. The only drawback here (also like The Return) is an obvious push towards cyan/teal, which seems to be the norm these days and is especially pronounced at times. Again, I don't have the DVD to confirm my suspicions but it wouldnt' surprise me in the least. Even so, the terrific level of detail and texture on display here makes the color palette a small problem I can certainly live with.
NOTE: The images on this page do not necessarily represent the title under review.
Luckily, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is less controversial: The Banishment sounds great with a lot of atmosphere and tension that really add to the overall viewing experience. Dialogue, sound effects, and the score by Andrei Dergatchev (with contributions by Estonian composer Arvo Part) are well-balanced without fighting for attention, while the rear channels and subwoofer are used sparingly but to wonderful effect during music cues, suspenseful moments, and extreme weather conditions. A mixed-down 2.0 lossless track is also included here, as well as optional English subtitles during the main feature and extras for translation only (oddly enough, the opening credits are not subtitled).
Kino's basic but classy interface is smooth and simple, with quick loading time and separate options for chapter selections, audio/subtitle setup, and bonus features. This one-disc release arrives in a standard non-eco keepcase with reversible, poster-themed cover artwork and includes a Digital Copy redemption slip just for good measure.
Much like The Return's Blu-ray, the lone "new" extra is a recent Interview with director Andrey Zvyagintsev (11 minutes); topics of discussion include casting, production, the narrative structure, and a few thematic overtones. It's an all-too-brief but extremely enjoyable chat, so fans of the film will appreciate hearing these candid retrospective comments.
Also here -- and technically also new to most viewers, even though it was assembled about 10 years ago -- is a Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (22 minutes) that goes into modest detail about The Banishment's inception, adaptation from William Saroyan's novel, casting, and release. Although not nearly as in-depth as The Return's making-of documentary, it's still a welcome effort that fans will enjoy. Rounding out this package is the Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes), presented in 1080p and framed at 2.35:1, along with trailers for The Return and Zvyagintsev's third film, Elena.
Exquisitely shot with a slow and steady pace, The Banishment captivates with its mysterious narrative and small cast of memorable characters. The atmosphere is almost relentlessly grim and, with one obvious exception, structurally sound and linear in execution. Even so, its sloppily handled final act robs The Banishment of a clean landing, relying on a twist that isn't really needed -- the story was never really broken and didn't need to be "fixed", especially so late in the film's slightly excessive lifespan. Still, this is a worthy follow-up to The Return and absolutely worth seeking out for new viewers, and Kino's Blu-ray offers a terrific introduction: featuring a top-tier A/V presentation and a few thoughtful supplements, this welcome disc should appeal to established fans and curious newcomers alike. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.