How does a state where “there is no crime” handle an act like murder when it occurs not once but dozens of times? The answer is that the state – in this case, post-World War II Stalinist Russia – creates an “official” story and buries the truth as capitalist propaganda. That’s what happens in Child 44, the new political thriller based on the first in a trilogy of novels by British author Tom Rob Smith. Tom Hardy stars as MGB agent Leo Demidov, who is busy at his job of routing out political dissidents when two major challenges come into his life: he is asked to denounce his own wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace), as a traitor, and also stumbles upon a series of grisly child killings that seem to stretch across 20 years and several areas of the Soviet Union.
Demidov is a rising star in the MGB (the Soviet domestic security apparatus) but unlike his more vicious colleague Vasil (RoboCop’s Joel Kinnaman), he has somewhat of a conscience and is horrified when Vasil shoots two suspected traitors dead right in front of their children. His allegiance to the state is tested further when their ultimate target, a man named Brodsky (Jason Clarke, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), gives up Raisa’s name as one of his associates. At the same time, the murder of another colleague’s (Fares Fares) young son is covered up as an accidental death by train, with Demidov tasked with delivering the news to the grieving family.
Demidov refuses to denounce Raisa so the MGB commander, Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel) ships them off to the bleak industrial outpost of Volsk. It is there that Demidov learns of dozens of more young boys being slain near railroad tracks and enlists the help of the local police chief (Gary Oldman) to determine the killer’s identity. The trail leads Demidov and Raisa back to Moscow and then the town of Rostov, with the obsessed and dangerous Vasil hot on their heels and the killer getting closer and closer to their grasp.
The novel was praised by critics as a dense, intricate and suspenseful read, but the film is overplotted and often confusing. Too many subplots work their way in and out of the main narrative, but the story’s biggest flaw – juggling the two major storylines of Demidov’s conflict with the state over his wife and his investigation of the child murders – is a problem that screenwriter Richard Price (Clockers) can’t solve. The two are connected only by the slimmest of thematic threads and narratively by a number of too-large coincidences, starting with Demidov being transferred to the very town where the most serial killings have taken place. We’re left feeling like there is some link that we’re missing, and the film’s constant switching between plots never allows any real momentum or suspense to take hold.
The mostly strong cast do what they can, but are also forced to struggle with the minutiae of the story as well as the thick, sometimes impenetrable Russian accents that everyone bravely adopts. Hardy occasionally falls back into brutish Bane mode, but for the most part succeeds at capturing Demidov as a tormented man of conscience trying to navigate a system that has little place for such. There is also a clear emotional undercurrent between him and Rapace, although her motivations are just murky enough to feel like they’re left to be explored further in one of the latter novels. Kinnaman displays the same amount of presence he did in RoboCop – which is to say, next to none – while the dependable Oldman seems as though he could have been written out with one more streamlined draft of the script.
Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, who wowed critics with his thriller Snabba Cash (Easy Money) but failed to make much impression with his American debut, 2012’s Safe House, seems out of his depth here. He appears unable to decide whether he wants to make an “important” film about life and politics in Communist Russia or a slick potboiler, and he doesn’t help his cause by filling the two-hours-plus with one of the least appealing visual palettes of the year as well as several incoherent action sequences. Drowned in unrelenting browns and grays by cinematographer Oliver Wood, the film soon turns into an eyesore, but equally irritating is Espinosa’s spasmodic shooting of both a brawl on a moving train and a battle between Vasil and Demidov in a muddy trench where you literally cannot tell one man from the other.
Child killings, political treachery, paranoia fear and social standing in a totalitarian state – none of it adds up to much, although there could probably be a more potent story chiseled out of all those elements. Even the identity of the killer doesn’t provide for any particularly revelatory moments or insights, and it makes sense that Ridley Scott had a hand in this (as a producer) since it feels like one of his empty spectacles minus the visual pleasures. Only the epilogue delivers a moment of grace that nearly pulls at least some of the movie together. Like the railroad trains that the characters are constantly boarding and exiting, Child 44 is big, ugly, full of smoke and clanking machinery – only this one is carrying little of value inside.
Child 44 is out in theaters Friday (April 17).