The first thing we notice is the noise: loud machinery, clanking metal, grinding chains. Then we catch abstract glimpses of the moving parts—and, for brief seconds, the sight of the dark ocean crashing below. But we can’t seem to catch our bearings. The camera is purposefully disorienting us, unsettling us. And it only gets worse from this point forward.
The soundtrack will soon give way to the wet scaly slaps of dying fish, the rattle of cracked shells, the gurgles of submersion, and the prehistoric calls of ravenous gulls. The visuals will move somewhat rhythmically between machines and flesh, metal and viscera. (One may easily be reminded of mid-90s Nine Inch Nails music videos.) This is Leviathan, a captivating documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University.
In regard to theme, narrative, or even setting, we have no firm footing. We are on a fishing vessel, but we might as well be on another planet. The voices of the crew sound alien. Their faces are the only evidence that they are human. And they are our only respite from the dripping blood, the dancing fish heads, the bulging eyeballs. Indeed, the animals look horrifically distorted and bloated, like demons out of Hieronymus Bosch. The aforementioned birds, in flight against the black sky, recall both the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner and the flight of dancing spirits in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence of Disney’s Fantasia. This should give you an idea of the film’s overall tone, as neither reference supplies much comfort.
Leviathan opens with an epigraph from the Book of Job, and it ends with a credit reel that lists the scientific names of the depicted species. The significance of these details, if any, is left for the viewer to decide. Some have read Leviathan as a parable about the viciousness of humanity against the environment, which it rapes and wastes with abandon, its hulking fishing vessels being construed as the true “Leviathan” of the title. There is perhaps good evidence to support this reading. However, I think that the film is better experienced with no such narrative in mind. It should be felt viscerally, like a psychological horror movie that creeps under your skin like botfly larvae. As already mentioned, it uses frequent disorienting cinematographical effects typical of films in that genre, and the audio track embodies the very essence of foreboding disquiet. On top of this, a few scenes of systematic butchering are certainly unnerving for anyone who has seen slasher films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
A close relative to Leviathan is Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, a film that presents Kuwaiti oil fires as alien phenomena. Both films offer us an alternative view of the world we think we know so well, and both make no attempt to shield us from the horror that runs so close to the surface of all that we do, breaching it here and there like starfish limbs through a fish net. But Leviathan does it better. It’s truly an astonishing and unforgettable work. Let it wash over you; let it nauseate you and stir up your unconscious fears. Maybe you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.