A cursory Google search reveals that, whatever Stalin may have thought of capitalism, he never declared homicide a Western disease. “There is no murder in paradise” is repeated ad nauseam, like some mantra, by the lackeys of the Cold War throughout Daniel Espinosa’s exhausting adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44. Homicide, certainly, isn’t the name that the state’s security force would use to describe the execution of a farmer and his wife in front of their two little girls, as the ghoulish Vasili’s (Joel Kinnaman) actions may be understood, logically, to be in service of defending the communist system from its perceived enemies. As for the film’s depiction of Soviet life as a state of perpetual surveillance—as they say, one man’s paradise is another man’s living hell. But in its tawdry depiction of the state sweeping under the rug the deaths of little boys found near train tracks between Moscow and Rostov Oblast in the year of Stalin’s death, the film ironically reveals itself as propaganda, and unmistakably beholden to that Western disease of airport fiction.
In the world of Child 44, the Soviet state’s security force, MGB, works in hysteric overtime to suss out spies, traitors, and the like. Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), who rose to prominence within the MGB ranks for being the one soldier to raise the flag over the Reichstag building in 1945, is arrogant and contemptible, yes, but still his own band apart, differentiated from his colleagues by his status as a war orphan, a point of distinction that telegraphs his crisis of consciousness and inevitable redemption. People, intellectuals mostly, are arrested everywhere for ostensibly conspiring against the state, and they all sing the same song about the futility of claiming their innocence. Child 44 isn’t concerned with demarcating lines between the guilty and innocent, only delineating the state’s perverse paranoia and the sadism of its methods. To catch a spy, and theatrically so, is the means toward a promotion—and to let one fall through one’s fingers is, presumably, a one-way ticket to the gulags. Needless to say, Leo obliges, until he’s tasked with arresting his own wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace).
That should be enough to test Leo’s blind obedience, and when Raisa reveals that she’s pregnant, the tear that the macho thug so subtly wipes away from his face suggests that he’s turned a corner. (Later Raisa reveals—spoiler alert!—that she isn’t pregnant at all, a ruse to test Leo’s empathy that’s intriguing in the moment for the layers of its moral engagement, though soured as soon as one recalls how the intimation of her rape in an earlier scene is so tackily played for our deck-stacked horror.) But the filmmakers, following Tom Rob Smith’s lead, insist that he needs more egging on. And so the real-life case of Andrei Chikatilo, killer of 50-plus women and children between 1978 and 1990, is loosely worked into the story. Here, though, the Butcher of Rostov is transformed into a nebbish who may not kill little boys for sexual gratification, but whose pathology one character speculates can be traced back to some Nazi experiment of forcing prisoners to drink children’s blood.
Such hooey, of course, supports Stalin’s claim about homicide as a Western disease, and it’s weirdly corroborated when the killer laughably acts out the methodology of his crimes on his own person. And to complete the film’s re-visioning of this madman from the realm of the grim to that of the Grimm, he caps his for-our-benefit-only performance by placing drops into the little candies that he offers his victims. The film is at once devoted to corroborating and casting an exaggerated light on Soviet paranoia and the state’s rhetoric of unmasking its enemies, while its convenient distortions of truth laughably exist to score politically correct points: In real life, shoddy forensic evidence allowed Shikatilo to evade capture for years, but in the world of Child 44 it’s the distraction of one witness’s homosexuality, and his subsequent suicide (by throwing himself in front of a train), that allows the film’s killer to remain on the lam. (Worst of all is how callous light is made of future lambs being led to slaughter, as suggested by the conflation of the sound of the train’s whistle with that of a group of children’s gleeful screams.)
A generous reading of the film would posit Espinosa’s wild gesticulations of tone as reflective of the illegibility of the state’s identity. Early on, a series of slow zooms regard character and landscape alike from an antiseptic remove; then, during a war sequence, the camera goes handheld, for the sake of pseudo-journalistic authenticity; and scenes are sutured together, with prestige aplomb, with what may as well be the same shot of a train coursing through green forests majesty (the only sense, however cliché, the film offers of the Soviet Union as paradise). Which is to say nothing of the climax: a two-for-one special that begins as a deleted scene from a Raid film before transitioning into an awkwardly blocked mud-wrestling contest. This is purple storytelling absurdly matched at every step by purple artistry, which treats character as subservient to the story’s overdetermined genre expectations. And to advancing, as in one police state’s corruption being replaced by another’s, a cynical vision of Russia trapped in a kind of eternal loop, smugly articulated with the familiar narrative beats of a filmmaker desperately holding out for a sequel.