The Banishment Review
Such was the impact of his remarkable 2003 debut feature The Return and the unique and deep treatment that he was able to bring to a seemingly standard drama thriller, that the stamp of Andrey Zvyagintsev is immediately apparent from the very first scenes of his second feature The Banishment - scenes of such intensity and foreboding that the viewer has every reason to be apprehensive about the manner in which the story will develop and characterisation will be revealed. The indications that this couldn’t be anything else but an Andrey Zvyagintsev film are all the more evident not so much in the brooding presence of Konstantin Lavronenko or the familiar themes on the subject of fatherhood absence and family conflict but, even though adapted from a short story by William Saroyan originally set in California, it's in the way that Zvyagintsev finds a way to express the deep emotions and bonds that this theme implies, inextricably connecting it with his vision of the Russian landscape.
The opening scene may seem like it is straight out of a crime thriller, Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko) finding his brother Mark (Aleksandr Baluyev) on his doorstep one night with a bullet wound in his arm, but the sentiments behind this meeting run much deeper than the surface impression. It’s about blood, family, masculinity, following an accepted code of conduct, asking no questions, doing only what needs to be done. Alex’s reaction is much the same when, having taken his wife and two children out to the family’s old country home, his wife Vera (Maria Bonnevie) informs him that she is pregnant and the child is not his – his immediate reaction is that he must somehow erase what has happened. His brother Mark has managed to take a similar step with his own family, leaving them behind without any regret. Alex knows that he must do the same, to neutralise the problem and regain his sense of masculinity and pride, but there are different ways by which it can be done – by forgiving and forgetting or by killing, and inside there is a voice crying out for blood.
Even that description makes The Banishment sound like a conventional dramatic thriller – and in many respects it is – but the difference is in the way that Zvyagintsev approaches the film and depicts it on the screen, and there it’s anything but conventional. Despite the initially slow pace, the economy of words spoken and the suppression of deep emotions, the significance of these two key moments and how they drive the subsequent events is fully explored and expressed in other ways, in the weather, the rain, the heat and the dust, but most notably in the desolation of the countryside, where the house that once belonged to Alex and Mark’s father sits perched on the edge of a ravine. Zvyagintsev’s mastery of this means of expression was evident in The Return, that film further taking the perspective of a child - specifically and significantly a son’s impression of his father. The Banishment also uses this technique, capitalising on the inability of Alex and Vera’s children to understand what goes on between adults. Speaking to a friend he meets out in the country about his concerns about his parents fighting, the son Kir asks a young girl “Do you now why they do it?”. She recognises the behaviour but admits “I thought about it, but I don’t know”.
Seen from a child’s perspective, The Return was a powerful film that played with this level of incomprehension without needing to delve into backstory and still make the behaviour, actions and events that occur feel utterly authentic and their inevitable consequences deeply moving. The Banishment similarly explores the incomprehensibility and complexity of the behaviour and the actions that take place between a husband and his wife, and even though it does eventually provide a conventional flashback to illuminate earlier events, the viewer is left no nearer to completely understanding what has happened. Which, considering the complexity of the emotions and notions of culpability that can only be subjective, is really how it should be. In exchange for such opacity, Zvyagintsev provides many other possible motives and meanings, drawing significance and menace from even the most seemingly innocuous of situations, locations and objects (the ringing of a phone always seems to portent an ominous revelation in this film) in a manner that is worthy of Tarkovsky (coming to mind particularly in one long camera pan down a newly formed stream filled with objects and detritus), or even Antonioni, but even with the arthouse staple of the de rigeur Avro Pärt soundtrack, such devices carry a very specific meaning and Zvyagintsev makes them very much his own.
The Banishment is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
For the main part, Artificial Eye have given the film a truly impressive transfer that works well with the content, but there are a few curious flaws that mar the presentation. The majority of the film looks most wonderful, showing a fine, stable progressive transfer that barely registers a flicker, with strong tones, accurate colouration and solid black levels that seem to hold all the underlying mystery and menace of the film. In several scenes however - mostly dark scenes with a degree of movement or camera panning - the image exhibits strange behaviour with objects leaving trails and facial features smearing and blurring. An example of this is shown in the screenshot below, though obviously it's more evident when in movement Depending on how your display device handles this error, the problem may be minor, but it could be distracting. On the whole though, it’s not pronounced and not frequent, the majority of the film looking just as clear and striking as it should.
There can however be no complaints with the audio options that include both Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. For the necessary immersive quality, the surround mix is the only viable option and it is magnificent, capturing the full dynamic qualities of the film, balancing the elements of the dialogue, effects and music score well and distributing them effectively and powerfully across the speakers.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional
In an exclusive Interview with Andrey Zvyagintsev (18:46), the director talks about how he came to film directing after training as an actor, the influence of Antonioni in that decision, and his intentions and aims with The Banishment. Happily, Zvyagintsev is not a director who believes his films need any additional commentary other than what is there on the screen, so instead he talks about the set design and the original story, discussing how important they were in creating a specific world view. The film’s original Russian Trailer is also included.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s second feature The Banishment more than lives up to the promise of his debut The Return. Once again the director provides a deep exploration of psychology and behaviour within the family unit, connecting it fully with the Russian landscape and delivering it all with the intensity and menace of the best thriller. Barring a few minor irritating flaws in the transfer Artificial Eye’s DVD presentation is, as ever, excellent.