No Looking Back (Otorvi i vybros) had its North America première at SXSW 2022
The intent of Kirill Sokolov‘s arresting feature debut Why Don’t You Just Die! (2018) was carefully laid out in its original Russian title, Papa, sdokhni (literally ‘Daddy, die’). For this was to to be a direct assault on the patriarchy, as a naïve young man confronts a corrupt cop old enough to be his father (indeed, the actual father of his girlfriend), in a violent collision of different genres and generational values. Sokolov’s follow-up plays a similar intergenerational game, while switching sexes. For No Looking Back (Otorvi i vybros, lit. ‘Rip off and throw away’) is a story of mothers, and of anger and aggression passed down the generations. It also manages all at once to be a women-in-prison picture, a road movie, a chase film, and (again) an improbable western, with its climactic showdown taking place this time not within the confines of a single apartment, but out in the Russian countryside.
No Looking Back begins with a cross-cut comparison and contrast. As pre-teen Masha (Sofya Krugova) runs outside on a barrel treadmill, crudely cursing with gruff determination throughout the exercise, the wild adult Olga (Viktoriya Korotkova) is being treated – and tortured – viciously in a women’s prison, shortly before the end of her four-year sentence for the assault of a policeman. Olga cannot wait to be released and reunited with her daughter Masha, and to take her from this rural backwater to a new life – and a new man – in the city, but she is not the only mother in this sequence. For the young prison guard (Daniil Steklov) brutally beating Olga does so under instruction from his mother, the warden (Olga Lapshina). “My daughter will have a different life,” Olga says to the warden, knowing full well that her defiant words will earn her yet more punishment, “unlike your son.”
Of course, Olga has her own mother, the formidable Vera Pavlovna (Anna Mikhalkova). “Do you think an ex-con slut is a good role model?”, Vera shouts after Olga, her words ironised by the fact that, in a rage, Vera has just stabbed her recently returned own daughter with a kitchen knife. Both Olga and Vera want change for Masha, the former by taking the girl to a new family far away, the latter by getting Masha permanently away from Olga. Yet the resourceful, mature Masha seems quite capable of looking after not just herself but the various childish adults around her – and meanwhile that warden starts questioning whether the gruff, cruel model of family life that she and her husband (Vitaliy Khaev) have passed onto their son might after all not be in his best interests as he too begins to settle down and think about a family of his own.
No Looking Back articulates its exploration of family and legacy through the grammar of genre, as these different characters face up to each other and learn their various lessons during a mad dash down Russia’s byroads. Determined to get Masha back for herself, and unconcerned, even enthusiastic, about any harm that might come to Olga, tough-as-nails matriarch Vera recruits the local policeman Oleg (Aleksandr Yatsenko) to help track down her fugitive daughter and granddaughter. Yet Oleg, whose missing eye is the reason that Olga went to prison in the first place, still carries a torch for his ex, and is now torn between the money that Vera has offered him, and his abiding love for Olga. What ensues is a clusterfuck of clashing values and the kind of tough love which leaves deep scars.
In the opening scene of No Looking Back, we see Masha’s legs fly up off the treadmill on which she is exercising and – for a frozen moment – remain hovering out of shot. The film ends too in a freeze frame, with Masha once more in mid-air. Here we see the contradictory dynamics that propel the film’s complex portrait of close (but frayed) connections of kinship: the desire for flight and escape, and the inevitable, gravitational need to fall back to where one started. Meanwhile, this is a film of strong women and weak men – indeed of three generations of women who are all more similar to one another than they are willing to acknowledge. It is bright and breezy, with its summery colours oversaturated in post-production to striking effect. This stylised hyperreality complements the flashes of hyperviolence that regularly punctuate this comically hyperbolic drama of family ties (and domestic dysfunction), and of children never falling too far from the tree. It is also, in its way, a picture of ‘Mother’ Russia as she struggles to move away from the prison-house of her violent past, but always, in the end, must look back and accept – even embrace – where she has come from as an essential part of her identity.
strap: Kirill Sokolov’s sophomore feature is a wild genre-fluid portrait of three mothers – and of Mother Russia herself – in vain flight from violent legacy.
No Looking Back will be released soon in the UK by Blue Finch Film Releasing.
© Anton Bitel