Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan opens with a passage from the Book of Job, an Old Testament chronicle of the suffering endured by the titular everyman, who’s tumultuous relationship with his faith is documented in roughly 39 chapters of poetic inquiry. Concerning Job’s allegorical inquisition into the relationship between human nature and that of our earthly environs, Chapter 41 of the Book of Job provides a metaphysical foundation for the latest documentary from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, who’s cinema division has given us some of the most impressive recent work in the field of nonfiction cinema, including Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass and Paravel’s Foreign Parts. These two luminaries collaborated on Leviathan, a staggering anthropological account of an industrial fishing vessel off the New Bedford coast of Massachusetts, where an untold number of ships have gone missing over the years as crews tend to a seemingly mundane vocation. Yet their workaday grind is anything but routine, and the results of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s fearless documentation of the enterprise is the heart-stopping cinematic analogue to the crew’s real-world peril.
Shot with impressive resourcefulness with multiple mini DVs strapped to everything from members of the crew to ropes tethered to the ship’s hull and thrown overboard to dead fish floating on the deck itself, Leviathan is one of the most uniquely fashioned films ever produced. It simply couldn’t have been made in any other era but the here and now, and Castaing-Taylor and Paravel take appropriate measures to put the audience directly in the proverbial line of fire. Only observational by association, Leviathan is instead an action movie par excellence, careening from kinetic would-be set pieces to tense moments of reconciliation between man and nature, a push-pull that lends the experience a gripping sense urgency. To that end, if Sweetgrass was the most exciting end result of what was ostensibly a documentary about sheep, then Leviathan leapfrogs its own classifications, arriving somewhere between detailed procedural and high-art drama.
Beginning in media res, the film swiftly finds crew members mobilizing pulley systems, grinding gears, and fastening nets for the day’s cast, quickly establishing a dynamic tension between the mechanical and the ethnologic, pivoting between industrial repetition and the nascent folly of the human body. At no point does anyone aboard the ship feel completely above hazard; even a common boatswain, after a typically draining day at work, can’t escape the din, as he’s audibly attacked by outside currents battling the sidewall of his cabin as he unavoidably nods off. The images the duo capture here are without question some of the most bracing this field has produced (two sequences where the camera is left clinging portside as the ship dives amongst the currents, alternately revealing a school of seagulls overhead and torrents of stingray blood pouring off the hull, already feel like classics), but the sound design is equally as crucial, suffocating and soothing in equal measure. The combination of the two adds up to one remarkably sensory experience.
Leviathan organizes many entities, both concrete and intangible, as opposing forces—first and foremost the communication between man and nature, but also the battle between the vulnerable and the impervious, the recurrent and the unchecked, and the fine line between heaven and hell on Earth, aggravated and antagonized by human interference or not. Throughout a lifetime of labor (or, in a more micro sense, on a day-to-day level amid life’s many universal concerns), there’s no escaping certain inevitabilities, and Leviathan enshrines both the forces of the environment and the men and women who attempt to physically interrogate the component parts of such a god-like fury—appropriate for a work of such bibilical proportions and consequence.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.