One of the best things about Fantastic Fest is the picture it paints of global cinema. It’s a chance for lazy filmgoers like me to see what else is going on in the world – films from Russia, Japan, Canada, France, Argentina, the UK and elsewhere all screened this year. What a great way to expand one’s cinematic horizons in a short period of time! So it’s with no small amount of guilt that I must confess how often I found myself thinking how ripe Dom: A Russian Family was for an Americanized remake. Specifically, I kept thinking of Joe Carnahan and Liam Neeson, and how this film would fit right next to The Grey as a compelling combination of brutal action and heart-wrenching pathos.
The plot is as Hollywood high-concept as you can get: Viktor “Shaman” Shamanov (Sergey Garmash) is a career gangster heading to a family reunion after 25 years away, tailed by assassins who want him (and whoever gets in the way) dead. That basic plot could deliver anything from a DTV piece of fluff to an Oscar-worthy Martin McDonagh offering. Oleg Pogodin’s film offers something less obvious, though. As the film goes along, more and more family members show up (I honestly had trouble keeping track of certain characters as the cast grew and grew), each with their own grudge against another member of the clan, or the world in general. Vodka is drunk; grievances are aired; feelings are stomped on. Typical family reunion stuff. Parallel to the growing reunion, we follow the team of assassins on Viktor’s trail, a subplot which offers more traditional action and laughs as the chatty team sets up camp in a nearby hotel. Overlapping all this is a third thread in which a hotel employee puts on her sexiest getup and makes her way toward the family homestead for a reunion of her own with Viktor.
Garmash is no joke, a throwback to the kind of monosyllabic leading men found in vintage action thrillers like Point Blank or Milano Calibro 9. His Viktor is a hardened criminal whose ill-gotten gains have provided his massive family with the money they need to thrive in their less-than-ideal rural Russian setting. He’s also the oldest of a very large brood, making him more legend than sibling to the younger members of the family. But his love for them is palpable: for every act of violence, Viktor is shown in an equally tender moment with the various members of his family. (Sometimes these moments are one and the same, such as the scene in which he beats the living shit out of a younger brother who wants to join Viktor in his life of crime.)
But the movie presents a chicken/egg scenario in which we’re not sure if Viktor is the product of this embittered, angry family, or if the family has been poisoned by years of living on Viktor’s blood money, their individual neuroses, feuds and transgressions sprouting like tumors on a terminal cancer patient. The film’s Peckinpah-inspired climax seems to suggest an answer to that question, adding a layer of Old Testament moral judgment on the characters, giving the thrilling conclusion an air of tragedy as the entire family is forced to answer for Viktor’s crimes. It's a stirring blend of the dramatic and the thrilling, an intriguing reminder of how action films can still be original if we're willing to let them be.