After James Wan’s police procedural turned Giallo Malignant made its debut two weeks ago it seemed the conversation around new and groundbreaking horror movies was at least acknowledging the lasting power of the detective story. At it’s core Lado Kvataniya’s The Execution embraces the darkest bits of a gritty crime drama while preserving the horrific elements of thrillers like Silence of the Lambs. it felt right at home at Fantastic Fest.
Detective Issa Davydov has finally achieved his dream. He is the new police captain. Soon after he discovers the serial killer case that helped him make his promotion may not be as cut and dry as he once thought. Told through different decades we get a full range of the health of the USSR throughout the film and the decades. In fact Davydov becomes chief at the worst possible time. An increasingly unstable central government is as much a character in this film as any other. The constant pressure from Moscow to find the serial killer imposes a timeline that functions like the dying heartbeat of the communist party. As the audience jumps back and forth through time, and sometimes between characters the movie sometimes veers into the world of pyscho-sexual thrillers (a sub genre I miss).
Kvataniya creates a world that feels familiar to those of us living in rural America. The central government apparatus has functionally failed many of its citizens and the police force exists in these communities like a vestigial appendage. The police force operate with the brutality of a sledge hammer. Solving crimes by torture. Getting confessions through asphyxiating suspects with plastic bags. Its brutal and pugilistic, and that is the point.
Perhaps the most interesting qualities of The Execution comes with its yellow patina which seems to seep into all elements of the film. It uses color and hues to create a type of nostalgia that is far from celebratory. In that way It feels like it shares a similar spirit to Season 1 of True Detective. True Detective on the Volga if you will. While it doesn’t lean into the Weird elements like True Detective, it feels like the King in Yellow is really the communist state as it crumbles. The Execution wants to know what happens to people who are worshipping an elder god who is dying. Where do they go after it is dead?
The Execution is not a perfect film. It is VERY LONG. With a runtime of two hours and ten minutes the film could use a more concise final edit. There are moments where the point of view changes, or the decades pass by where the audience feels its length. Stretching the film out as it does feels like the story being told is quite thorough, but losses some of the power of suspense or ambiguity that can make detective stories so interesting. There is a pretty significant twist at the end that felt obvious and while it was artfully shot felt a bit cliched. That being said, while I saw the ending coming the ending was still intense and dark. Two apt descriptors for the film in general.
Kyataniya film is beautifully shot. An almost obsessive dedication to detail makes scenes in an around the cluttered cabins and police stations feel vaguely reminiscent of David Fincher’s Seven. Fincher’s influence is all over this movie. While the serial killer in The Execution doesn’t use horoscopes to communicate with the detectives their relationship feels very similar to the investigators in Zodiac. In a culture that seems to constantly discuss crime and punishment the idea that both concepts can transcend state control is interesting, unique, and could teach us something about our own American experiences with crime and democracy (looking at you January 6th investigators.)
Some of the most interesting films of the last couple of years have come from Russia. While they are at least partially funded by the Russian Federation they are often unflinching exposes that examine the failures of the state. They do not run from their past historical mistakes but rather frame them as important sign posts leading the way to a modern country that has hopefully learned from its own mistakes ( for the record modern Russia still has plenty of problems it needs to grapple with but a movie that doesn’t rewrite its countries history is worth watching). It makes me excited to see more films out of the region and excited for this type of examination through horror we could get in the United States sometime soon.
The Execution plays as part of Fantastic Fest 2021 starting this week.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.