Fantastic Fest 2021: THE EXECUTION: A Sweeping Russian Serial Killer Epic

A thrilling debut from director Lado Kvatanya

I think it’s safe to say at this point that “serial killer epics” are a firmly established subgenre. I’m talking about frequently period-set mystery/drama/thrillers that are grand in scope, and explore not only the cat and mouse chase of cops, killers, and victims, but also the culture around which these events take place. Just off the top of my head (I’m sure dozens of other examples might spring to your minds) you’ve got David Fincher’s Zodiac, Bong Joon Ho’s Memories Of Murder, and the Netflix series Mindhunters (which Fincher was also involved with). All of these properties take turns thrilling and frustrating their viewers and characters alike, frequently exposing the brokenness of humanity and the shortcomings of political and justice systems. The Execution is Russia’s latest entry into this subgenre and it easily goes toe to toe with those examples.

Hopping back and forth from events in and around 1981 to 1988 to 1991, The Execution follows Detectives Issa Valentinovich (Nikoloz Tavadze) and Ivan Sevastyanov (apologies, unable to locate the actor’s name) through a roller coaster of events surrounding the capture of a serial killer. Issa made his career as a younger man bringing a notorious serial killer to justice. Having seemingly done the same again in 1991 and being promoted in the process, a woman comes screaming out of the forest having escaped a murderer — throwing Issa’s previous arrest out the window. The screenplay from debut director Lado Kvatanya and co-writer Olga Gorodetskaya weaves wonderfully back and forth, doling out breadcrumbs masterfully to keep the audience guessing and engaged as an ever more complex picture is painted of the complex psychologies not only of the killers, but of the cops as well. According to Kvatanya, the writers were interested in exploring the collision between a conformist (Issa) and an idealist (Ivan) as they attempt to solve an almost impenetrable crime.

First and foremost, The Execution works because it’s a riveting thriller. As much as it’s possible to be “entertained” by such grim subject matter as a serial killer, The Execution is loaded with red herrings and shocking revelations, all aided by the time hopping screenplay that can at times be tough to follow, but which will all pay off in a hermetically sealed package. In the final act of the film a number of major twists and turns emerge which I won’t spoil for anyone, but which firmly place the film into a slightly more satisfying package than some of the other films I’ve categorized The Execution alongside.

But that’s where another level of The Execution’s excellence should be noted. Because while the film will ultimately shock and entertain the viewer with its twists, the first two thirds of the movie very clearly explore the extreme “Russian-ness” of the events occurring. Aesthetically, The Execution is brilliant. I don’t know what Russia actually feels like, having never been there myself, but The Execution transported me to smoke-filled, dimly lit institutional offices and isolated farms in the forest and the cinematography and set design all just clicks into place. In terms of story, Issa is pressured by the government to wrap up the case and name a killer to save face, and it becomes clear just how much the USSR government apparatus will have an impact on the case as Issa makes his career by naming a name, and Ivan spirals out of control with the need for the truth. It honestly never really occurred to me to consider the actual historical context of what was happening in Russia as these events were unfolding, but The Execution is subtle in this regard, allowing an attentive viewer to associate the dissolution of our main characters with the dissolution of the USSR itself without being on the nose.

One of the biggest surprises and best films I’ve seen thus far at Fantastic Fest 2021, The Execution is a thrilling debut from a first-time filmmaker. Audiences who’ve loved serial killer cinema in the past will most definitely want to take the time and check out The Execution, assuming it ever secures a North American release, which I hope it does!

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