Directed by Vyacheslav Krishtofovich

Written by Andrei Kourkov

With Alexandre Lazarev, Tatiana Krivitska, Eugen Pachin, Constantin Kostychin, Elena Korikova, Angelika Nevolina and Sergiy Romanyuk

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics


Warning: spoilers ahead.

There's nothing particularly original about the premise of A FRIEND OF THE DECEASED: a depressed man decides to commit suicide by hiring a killer. It forms the basis of Aki Kaurismaki's I HIRED A CONTRACT KILLER and Robert Bresson's THE DEVIL, PROBABLY, as well as a major subplot in Krzysztof Kieslowski's WHITE. As a friend of mine observed, it's even possible to imagine a Hollywood remake, in which our hapless yet innocent protagonist, possibly played by Tom Hanks, winds up learning a Valuable Lesson About The Beauty Of Life. The originality of the film lies in its commitment to the subjectivity of Anatoli (Alexandre Lazarev), a suicidal, chronically unemployed 35-year-old intellectual. The style of A FRIEND OF THE DECEASED is determined by his desires (or lack thereof, as the case usually is.)

Although Anatoli is fluent in English and French, he can't find a steady job. (In the first of many omissions, the film never specifically states what kind of work he used to do.) His wife Katia (Angelika Nevolina), a relatively successful advertising executive, is about to leave him. In order to get by, he's reduced to degrading temporary "work" like translating a rather dubious deal for a thuggish businessman, complete with threats, and taking money to pose an adulterer in a divorce trial. He runs into his old friend Dima (Eugen Pachin), who seems to be doing better. Although Dima works as a salesman at a shop that sells liquor, coffee and tea, he hints at all sorts of underworld connections, including a hit man acquaintance. Suddenly, Anatoli sees a way out.

Tracking down the hit man Kostia (Constantin Kostychin), he takes a contract out on himself. He claims that he wants to kill his wife's lover but sends Kostia a photo of himself, with instructions to track down the "target" at his favorite cafe. The day of the appointment comes, but the cafe shuts down early for a private party for the owner's son. Anatoli goes out for a drunken night on the town, meeting a prostitute who goes by the name of Vika (Tatiana Krivitska). After sleeping with her, his life no longer seems so dismal, but he can't get up the courage to call off the hit, even when Kostia calls to inform him that he's still trying to finish the job. Becoming more and more desperate, he heads out to the country to hire a "bodyguard", an aging military man named Ivan (Sergiy Romanyuk). Ivan suggests that he hang out in the cafe, waiting for Kostia to show up. Anatoli reluctantly agrees, and when Kostia shows up, Ivan tracks him down and kills him. Feeling guilty and trying to make some kind of reparation, Anatoli gives the money from Kostia's wallet to his widow Marina (Elena Korikova) and turns the "contracts" that turn up in Kostia's P.O. box over to Ivan.

It would be foolish to over-generalize, but a new style seems to have emerged over the past ten years in post-Communist Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union: one that responds to the speed and chaos of modern life by mirroring it. As different as films like Kira Muratova's THE ASTHENIC SYNDROME, Srdan Dragojevic's PRETTY VILLAGE, PRETTY FLAME are, Lucian Pintillie's THE OAK and Otar Iosseliani's BRIGANDS: CHAPTER VII are, they share a bleak, cruel sense of humor and a tendency to pile incident upon incident and grotesquerie upon grotesquerie at a manic pace. responding to the speed and chaos of modern life by mirroring it. At their most lucid, these films aspire to function as homeopathic remedies. THE ASTHENIC SYNDROME depicted a man who responds to stress by sinking into a pathological state of depression and withdrawal; A FRIEND OF THE DECEASED is a different diagnosis of the same syndrome. Vyacheslav Krishtofovich shares some of the concerns of directors like Muratova and Iosseliani, but he expresses them in a far quieter, more austere manner.

The malaise that Anatoli suffers from has personal roots, but it's clearly a political one as well. In an interview included in Sony Pictures Classics' press kit, Krishtofovich opines that "the pseudo-liberalism which has replaced socialism in our country has also produced a disintegration in human relations. True, we weren't as free before, but this absence of freedom made people behave more warmly to one another. Real solidarity was apparent on every level of society. A joyous, underground society enabled us to bear the oppression." (Given the Academy's fondness for anti-Communist films from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, A FRIEND OF THE DECEASED is probably not bound for an Oscar nomination, even though it's the Ukrainian candidate for Best Foreign Film.) However, the film's attitude towards the past feels far more elusive than Krishtofovich's statement would suggest, in part because it's not easy to draw the line between the feelings of the filmmakers and their characters. Krishtofovich's portrayal of the effects of capitalism on the Ukraine may be scathing, but there's little overt nostalgia in it. All of its characters act as if the world came into existence around 1989; the past, including the roots of Anatoli and Dima's friendship and the happy moments of Anatoli and Katia's marriage, is so distant that it may as well have taken place in another century. Ultimately, these ellipses feel rather evasive, as if Krishtofovich were reluctant to openly suggest that the quality of Ukrainian life was better under Communism.

In addition to this avoidance of backstory, Andrei Kourkov's screenplay makes knowing use of stock characters and situations: the concept of identity exchange between killer and victim and the male fantasy of the "hooker with a heart of gold," in particular. In a Hollywood movie, Vika would yearn to settle down with Anatoli, and the two would put each other on the road to "redemption." Here, she's an affectionate but distant presence, content to lead her own life, which occasionally crosses paths with Anatoli's. She has no intention of marrying him, and she's even willing to have him publicly humiliated on the street when he sees with her with another man. Kourkov is somewhat less successful at playing with the former concept; the irony of Anatoli's subsequent relationship with Marina gets laid on a bit too thick, especially in the final shot. Even so, the relationship remains ambiguous, mostly because it seems grounded more in Marina's despair and neediness than active desire on the part of either partner.

In fact, Anatoli never quite gets around to learning that Valuable Lesson. He never acts maliciously, but he's incapable of finding a way out of the fog of depression. Whenever he tries to do the right thing, the results are usually not what he intended. One moment best sums up his personality: spotting two potentially threatening men on the sidewalk, he stands still, forcing them to brush past him. He makes no attempt to get away, and he's astonished when nothing happens. Lazarev's performance is often extraordinary; Anatoli's passive nature seem to have sunk into his very bones. Furthermore, Vilen Kaluta's cinematography and Gueorgui Stremovski's sound design go a long way lending a visceral impact to Anatoli's point of view. Even though A FRIEND OF THE DECEASED takes place in the summer, the Kiev streets almost always look gray and overcast, and they look noticeably brighter on the rare occasions when Anatoli feels more optimistic. His phone becomes a frightening, noisy presence; at one point, he hands a portable phone to Katia as gingerly as if here were holding a vicious animal.

At its worst, A FRIEND OF THE DECEASED feels like a symptom of the amnesia that it describes. Krishtofovich and Kourkov do a terrific job of exploring the economic and moral decay of the present-day Ukraine, but they don't even attempt to dig into its roots. But for all its flaws, the film does accomplish something valuable: describing a volatile new society from the point of view of the people it excludes. Given the heartlessness that characterizes so much American public life (and so many American films), its empathy is welcome.