Beginning with a slovenly nod to the WWI-era underworld serial Les Vampires and finishing on the same quote from Revelation that named Elem Klimov’s Belorussian death march Come and See, the new Russian film The Rider Named Death languidly contemplates the chilling seductions of 20th-century violence. Its milieu isn’t one we’re overacquainted with: 1905 Russia, when the czar and the aristocracy still ruled but the various revolutionary forces and their radical terrorist arms were gathering steam, busily bombing and assassinating officers, dukes, politicos, and diplomats. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Boris Savinkov—written in 1909, before the insurrectionary free-for-all came close to coalescing into something much worse—Karen Shakhnazarov’s film makes no bones about trying to get under Savinkov’s skin.
A cultured political murderer who fought against the anti-Socialist Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution and who apparently wrote his book while a fugitive from czarist forces after escaping from custody in 1907, Savinkov must’ve been a scary, fascinating, white-hot live wire, that rare figure who might justify a full-on historical biopic. (Like the movie’s hero, Savinkov fell to his death in 1925 from the window of a Cheka interrogation room—jumped or pushed.) Shakhnazarov’s movie doesn’t quite rise to the possibilities, preferring a slack narrative line, an oddly underpopulated urban vibe, and an overall air of life-is-cheap detachment. Savinkov’s stand-in is Georges (Andrei Panin), the whispery, gimlet-eyed leader of a motley band of Socialist Revolutionary assassins. In the 23-year run-up to 1917, some 17,000 Russian officials and blue bloods were blown up or shot down by rebel groups, but in The Rider Named Death the killers are bumbling losers, attempting again and again to take out a particular grand duke. Hesitancy, religious debates, ill-made explosives—Georges watches glumly as his mini-army of four continuously fails, leaving him to complete the task and, naturally, ask himself for what, exactly, he’s so determined to spill blood.
Like most ostensibly opulent historical epics made in poor countries, the film has an endearingly rough-hewn character, all natural light, filth, second-grade materials, and rooms that seem to have already felt a century of aging. Cutting corners, Shakhnazarov even utilizes compositional strategies from Peter Watkins’s La Commune—but on real Russian streets. All the same, The Rider Named Death is curiously anemic; rather than passion, outrage, and danger, we’re contemplating the sotto voce conspiracy love of a quaintly distant age, when results weren’t quite as emotionally important as commitment and camaraderie. Panin, resembling a fusion between Jon Voight and icy character-actor icon George Macready, is too skilled at coolness and never opens up. Shakhnazarov is no Pontecorvo, and his film isn’t interested in reflective politics so much as the melancholy of history, despite the parallels to be drawn to Chechnya (or, of course, any of several dozen anti-imperialist revolutions ongoing as we speak). Although we sympathize with George and his team of halfasses, never are we shown a second of czarist injustice or poverty, as if the dynamite-happy freedom fighters were embroiled for the sake of abstract ideas and nothing more.