Siberia

Siberia is a parody of broodingly serious antihero dramas that forgot to bring any intentional jokes.

Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

One of the main strands in Season 5 of BoJack Horseman concerned BoJack’s new show, ‘Philbert.’  ‘Philbert’ is a dark gritty antihero cop drama filled with extreme violence, gratuitous nudity and sex, lots ingrained misogyny from underwritten and disposable female characters, a needlessly obtuse plot that makes precious little sense and could have been trimmed in at least half, and is so concerned with being seen as “deep” and “smart” and “daring” and other such buzzwords that it actually ends up utterly meaningless and extremely silly, pretentious to a ludicrous degree with its architect, Flip McVicker, being the textbook definition of a deluded hack under the false impression that he’s a genius.  BoJack was very clearly parodying our current era of Peak TV, but such stories are not the sole property of cable television/your streaming network of choice.  Witness, or rather don’t, Siberia, a film that makes Ozark look like a watchable piece of media, although Siberia at least knows how to properly light a shot so that’s one mark up it has on Ozark.

This is one achingly dull film.  Matthew Ross’ sophomore feature is a plodding, cliché-ridden, snorefest with precious little to talk about and even less to recommend it.  Keanu Reeves stars as Lucas, a black-market diamond merchant lured to Russia by the promise of a high-risk deal from the brother of one of his contacts, Pyotr (Boris Gulyarin), that will make everybody a lot of money very quickly.  When Lucas makes it to St. Petersburg, however, Pytor has disappeared to Siberia and left Lucas with no diamonds, sample or otherwise, holding the proverbial bag in the face of feared crime boss Boris Volkov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff).  Lucas negotiates a two-day staying of execution in order to jet off to Siberia and track down his associate, only for there to be no trace of Pyotr in Siberia either.  Instead, the married Lucas meets down-on-her-luck waitress Katya (Ana Ularu) and the two strike up a relationship through some of the most inadvertently-hysterical dialogue and reasoning I have seen in a film all year.  Meanwhile, proceedings almost literally grind to a halt after these opening 25 minutes when Lucas’ pilot arbitrarily decides not to fly him back to St. Petersburg in order to follow up on another lead as to Pyotr’s whereabouts, presumably because the film would end early otherwise.

Admittedly, the hook of many a noir, and Siberia does seem to fancy itself a noir in many respects, does not come from expedited pacing or a continuous narrative.  One has to expect and even embrace the moments in such stories where the film stops in order to spend time luxuriating in mood and theme, narrative dead-ends but ones whose removal would resultantly create a lesser film.  But that’s not what happens with Scott B. Smith’s screenplay (who also shares a story credit alongside Stephen Hamel).  Instead, his screenplay seems to start up an entirely different film out of the blue and runs that for the next 30 or so minutes, switching to Lucas and Katya’s burgeoning romance despite a complete lack of chemistry on the part of either actor, hysterically-inept dialogue – variations of “do you hate me yet?” appear as a come-on, a piece of attempted witty banter, and a supposedly-heartwarming declaration of love throughout – and this slow-burn romance, delivered with all the heat of an air-conditioned igloo, running completely counter to the gritty race-against-time crime drama the first third of the movie had been setting up.

Well, the grit follows along, at least.  Every element of Siberia is deathly serious and intentionally cold, like Ross is on a quest to smother out any semblance of knowing fun or life within the movie.  He’s quite successful at his job, too, given how it takes a director of real anti-skill to make such blunt dialogue like “51 years and you’ve never learnt how to hold a woman after sex” pass by with barely a derisive chortle, so leaden is the delivery and pacing of this 100 minute alleged ‘thriller.’  Were Ross’ direction to have displayed even the slightest pulse, Siberia could have worked as a stealth parody of these kinds of glum brooding White-male-antihero-midlife-crisis-metaphor dramas.  It’s not like he’s lacking in material, from pointless scenes of bad guys threateningly prostituting helpless women designed to further the male protagonist’s guilt, to shotgun-to-the-face subtle detours involving characters going hunting, to washed-out colour palettes and austere cinematography, to a score so simplistic that its attempt at a love theme sounds like one of those pre-made demos from Garageband, to poor-old Keanu Reeves being wasted pensively staring outwards into the middle distance looking concerned and trying to will a character into being.

There’s just nothing of interest to talk about here.  Characters are unlikeable and/or nonsensical, frequently performing dumbass actions for the very obvious sake of the plot.  Performances are stiff and often operating in entirely different movies to one another, Lychnikoff in particular chews scenery like he’s gone without food for a week beforehand whilst Molly Ringwald literally phones in a cameo as Lucas’ wife.  The film goes on for bloody ages despite having nothing to say or do; I personally could cut at the very least 30 minutes from this thing without losing anything substantial.  The screenplay has no texture or subtlety whatsoever, even ending by juxtaposing a flashback to a sex scene with a fatal act of violence like it’s a student presentation for an Intro to Gender Studies in Film class.  And it evidently has no idea what film it actually wants to be given the needlessly convoluted structure and obligatory (and terribly-shot) shoot-out finale that only seems to be here so marketing can falsely parrot “John Wick meets [x]” on the back of the DVD case to lure in unsuspecting victims.

Pretty much the only thing separating Siberia, a real and very serious movie made by actual human beings, from Philbert, a fake and deliberate parody of such works that’s been made to resemble the creation of a fictional cartoon character, is that the dialogue in Siberia doesn’t abuse the term “literally” to the extent that Flip McVicker does.  Leave it in the wilderness.

Siberia is playing in cinemas and available to buy on Digital Download now.

Callum Petch has searched, searched, searched his whole life to find, find, find the secret.

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