Between 1978 – 1990, a series of brutal murders were committed by Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, totaling more than 50 women and children before he was captured, convicted, and executed via firing-squad. This absolute horror serves as the narrative jumping off point for first-time feature director and co-writer Lado Kvataniya’s The Execution which has its World Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2021. Rather than try to recreate these horrors, the story by Kvataniya and Olga Gorodetskaya (Evil Boy) borrows pieces, crafting something entirely new to explore the contest of good vs. evil while requiring suffering through a variety of grief. Truth is often stranger than fiction, but it can serve as the spring board for some truly immaculate storytelling in the right hands. Folks, The Execution is that story and Kvataniya possesses those hands.
On the same night that famed Russian officer Issa Davydov (Niko Tavadze) celebrates receiving a promotion within the Russian police force for years of incredible service, a woman arrives in the hospital, claiming that she was attacked by the same serial killer Davydov arrested years before. With her evidence and testimony, Davydov is determined to find out the truth, following it all the way to a remote house, putting him face-to-face with the person responsible.
The above summary doesn’t even scratch the surface of Kvataniya and Gorodetskaya’s story and you’ll be better served knowing as little as possible going into it. While EoM initial reviews always aim to examine a film with zero spoilers, in order to discuss The Execution, there must be talk of how the film is set up and implemented. So, if that sounds like even too much to know, watch the film and then come back. Seriously.
Still here? Watched it and came back? Let’s dive in.
Based on the premise alone, expectations are high for a fairly standard cop procedural thriller. If they’d wanted to, Kvataniya and Gorodetskaya could have done this and The Execution would’ve delivered an as-expected experience. With the performances from the central cast as strong as they are, the cinematography from Denis Firstov (Коллектор) capturing and conveying the beauty and yet chilled atmosphere, the score from composer Kirill Richter enveloping you in the enigma that is the case, the whole of The Execution would be a strong effort on these merits alone. Instead, Kvataniya and Gorodetskaya opt for something more sinister, yet so simple. The narrative persistently jumps in time, typically without warning, though usually with at least a marker to indicate where we are. Like an interrogator who makes you feel comfortable, lobbing easy question after easy question, imperceptibly shifting their approach in order to make you more compliant or more likely to slip up on your details, the narrative toys with you, making you comfortable with what you think you know until you’re ass over tea kettle, ready to spill your guts on a crime you didn’t commit. This isn’t just style over substance either; there’s a real purpose, an extraordinary sleight of hand, taking place because The Execution is as much about evaluating the past as it is examining the present. What happened between the start of the film and Davydov’s arrival on the case matters just as much as the clues found along the way to the first suspect and to the last. Sometimes jumping in time for the sake of dramatic tension is reductive (see: Raging Fire (2021)) but, with Execution, it’s a narrative necessity, one whose use makes your blood run cold the longer you watch.
Within the time jumps, Kvantiya blocks the entire film into six sections plus a prologue. The first section introduces the audience to “The Chief,” who is Tavadze’s Davydov, with the remaining sections titled after the different stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The film being about catching a killer and the recognition of perhaps convicting the wrong one, using each stage as a thematic title for its respective section might seem weird given that the five stages are frequently attributed to getting over a loved one. Except, and this is key, those stages are for those who are dying themselves. That was the intent of its creation, to help those given a terminal diagnosis the ability to process the grief that comes from such news. With this notion, the twists and turns within The Execution don’t so much become clear, but do assist in creating a distinction between what Kvataniya and Gorodetskaya want the audience to focus on and the secrets yet to be unearthed.
Amusingly, a film that The Execution is compared to in the press materials is Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), a similar film in that it features a partnership between a local cop and an out-of-towner trying to solve a series of unsolved killings. I recently watched this film for an episode of The Cine-Men and found it tonally uneven, making it difficult to latch onto for any significant amount of time. This is not the case with Kvataniya’s The Execution. The tone is balanced, the performances transfixing, and the way the mystery unfolded dug its claws into me to the point I leapt up in terrible frustration when my stream of the film got hung up with 20 minute left. Given the opportunity, I will do a deeper dive on The Execution. It’s a film which deserves it. But to do so now would absolutely ruin the mystery within and traveling through the story with Davydov, his family, his partner Officer Ivan Sevastyanov (Evgeniy Tkachuk), and the killer as blind as Davydov is at times is the best possible way to experience the film. Allow yourself to fall into the traps of expectations and allow yourself the grace of being surprised.
For more information, head to XYZ Films’s official The Execution website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.