There’s nothing particularly novel about Oleg Sentsov’s Rhino, a rise-and-fall gangster narrative about a Ukrainian tough guy who carves a bloody swath through his enemies for the better part of two decades before making a tentative stab at redemption. But in Sentsov’s hands this well-trod material feels fresh and revitalized, thanks in no small part to a remarkable performance by newcomer Serhii Filimonov. Beginning with an energetic prologue that traces the cruel existence of a poor family through what appears to be 10 years or so, little Vova watches his father come home from prison, only to be sent right back after abusing Vova’s mother, while his older brother prepares to ship off to Afghanistan to fight on Russia’s behalf. The brother is killed and the house becomes a waystation for aunts and young women with babies all grieving the loss of a generation of young men. Sentsov and cinematographer Bogumil Godfreow relay the passage of time with whip pans, hidden edits, and subtle changes in color grading, all so that the past flows like one single, hazy, long take enveloping everyone around it. Now a young man himself, Vova goes to dances with his girlfriend, Maryna (Alina Zevakova), and gets wasted with his buddies. It’s a dead-end existence, until the bull-headed adolescent picks a fight with gangsters at a local gym. After he’s beaten, the men demand a thousand dollars in restitution, or they’ll burn down Vova’s house with him and his mother still in it. Realizing he’ll never be able to get his hands on that much money, Vova instead offers his services to a rival group of gangsters, who will protect him from retribution as long as he is in their employ. It’s these men who bestow the nickname Rhino on Vova, and from that point on he is their human wrecking ball.
Sentsov speeds through the typical gangster film’s highlights with an eye for careful ellipsis. Months and years transpire between single edits, and soon after the Berlin Wall falls and the USSR collapses, Vova is leading his own gang. He and Maryna are married now, and eventually have a baby girl. But Rhino is troubled; for all his success, and despite his brute strength, he’s just self-aware enough to realize that he’s a bad person who has done terrible things. Smartly, Sentsov doesn’t overplay his hand here; even as Rhino speaks of redemption and changing his violent ways, he still carries a gun and threatens people on behalf of loan sharks. He’s stumbling in the dark, grasping at profundity, and coming up short. Eventually, his past catches up with him, and when tragedy strikes, Rhino goes off the deep end. He refuses to believe that simple accidents can happen, that it must be his enemies finally coming for revenge. And so he responds in the only way he knows how: with violence. Like its namesake, Rhino is a brutal, angry film, a sad paean to a country destroyed by greed and corruption. At one point Rhino waxes poetic about the good old days, only to stop and remind himself that all of his old friends are either dead or in prison, and that the smart criminals have become cops and politicians. Like one of Paul Schrader’s God’s Angry Men characters, Rhino is trapped in an existential crisis of his own making, and in the end all he can do is try to accept his fate with dignity. Sentsov wrote the film back in 2011, before spending five years in a Russian prison for protesting the country’s annexation of Crimea. There’s certainly a lot of angst crammed into Rhino’s runtime, and an ambivalence about whether it’s truly possible for things to get better. Like a gritty mix of Don Siegel and Robert Bresson, Sentsov searches for transcendence but seems resigned to a more ignoble reality.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival — Dispatch 2.