Writer/director Lado Kvataniya’s feature debut The Execution (Kazn) opens with a double prologue, both showing events set near its chronological end. The first sequence, expressly marked in text onscreen as taking place in 1988, shows a murder with a very distinctive MO, as an unseen figure carries an unconscious woman, Vera (Yulia Snigir), from a car into the woods at night, stuffs her mouth with earth, then turns her over and rudely awakens her by stabbing her in the back with a knife. Already dying, she staggers away – and then a match cut takes us to a different woman, also staggering and limping in the woods, as the on-screen time marker switches from 1988 to 1991. This second woman is Kira (Aglaya Tarasova), who has managed to escape to the road with relatively minor injuries, and flags down a passing truck as a shadowy figure in the tree line coolly observes her getaway.
The Execution is full of such doublings. It is not just that serial killers, by their very nature, deal in acts of repetition, but also that those two victims – one dead, one surviving – will turn out to be sisters, while those earlier put away for the murders of Vera and many others were twin brothers. Now that the killing has started up again, Issa Davydov (Niko Tavadaze) must reopen the case that he had been celebrated for successfully closing a couple of years earlier, and determine whether his new suspect (Daniil Spivakovsky) is entirely innocent, or the original killer, or a copycat like those whom Davydov, in his many years of investigating these murders, has encountered before.
Kvataniya’s film is itself a kind of copycat, appropriating many of its details from the real-life case of Andrei Chikatilo, the ‘Butcher of Rostov’ who between 1978 and 1990 murdered and mutilated over 50 women in what became known as the ‘forest strip killings’. Similarly Davydov is based, right down to his forename, on the special procurator, Issa Kostoyev, who supervised the investigation from 1985 (although here Davydov takes over the investigation earlier, in 1981), and who, like Davydov, innovated by being the first in Russia to consult a psychiatrist to create a serial killer’s profile.
Yet while The Execution borrows from reality, it weaves from it something that is less documentary or docudrama than an allegorical work of fiction. Right from the start, Kira’s flight and subsequent vehicular rescue evoke the end of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – while bringing a different kind of massacre full circle. In his subsequent interrogation of creepy suspect Andrey Valita, Davyda will consult the ‘chess player’ (Dmitry Gizbrekht), another serial killer whom he had apprehended in a previous case, as though this were Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Like Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Fincher’s teleseries Mindhunter (2017-9), this converts true crime into genre thrills, while tracking the introduction of a new, methodical professionalism to serial killer investigations. Eagle-eyed viewers may even notice an impossibly anachronistic VHS copy of Memories of Murder being taped over for use in a police interview, marking the special status of Bong’s film as a key palimpsest for Kvataniya’s.
Like Árpád Sopsits’ Strangled (2016), The Execution broadens its investigation into a forensic autopsy of the failings of the Soviet state – and indeed it is hardly a coincidence that Davydov’s (entirely fictionalised) second set of enquiries comes to an end just before the collapse of the USSR in late 1991, as though communism and the killer’s spree represented parallel, coterminous histories. There are even more improbable (though nonetheless engaging and incisive) references to Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2004), as so much of the evidence and testimony will prove to be smoke and mirrors, opportunistically bamboozling police and viewers alike into seeing what they want to see.
The story of The Execution is delivered piecemeal, dividing itself into seven formally headed chapters, and regularly disrupting its own timeline with leaps backwards and forwards through a ten-year period. This turns the narrative into a kind of mosaic puzzle, with each episode further illuminating what has preceded and what follows, requiring not only that viewers pay close attention to even the most incidental-seeming details (here everything carries weight), but also that they be prepared constantly to revise their understanding of what they have watched in the light of subsequent scenes. It is a taut, tightly written, twisty affair, leading to revelations that few will see coming (even in a genre where we expect that people are not who they seem). The full significance of its many acts will be even more greatly appreciated – and rewarded – on a second viewing.
What is clear from the outset, though, is that this is to be a story where the distinction between good and evil can be illusory. When Davyda first enters the scene in 1981, flush with success from having captured the Chess Player, he may bring to the investigation a fresh idealism, impetus and energy which his young colleague, the police videographer Ivan Sevastyanov (Evgeniy Tkachuk), finds impressive and infectious. Yet we already know from his first scene in the film a full decade later, that Davyda’s investigation will end in disappointment, and that he will apparently have convicted the wrong man, throwing his own celebrity into doubt. Indeed, as the years pass and the frustrations mount, the disillusionment of both these men will set in, and they will revert to illicit, immoral procedures that align them ever closer to the killer they seek.
The Execution takes its title from an ancient Etruscan form of punishment whereby, as Sevastyanov puts it, “a murderer is tied to their victim’s body and they’re left to rot alive.” It is a fitting metaphor for a scenario in which unconscionable acts of murder, unchecked over time, bind everyone together in their corrupting putrefaction, so that perpetrator and investigator can no longer be distinguished. Yet the rot here also belongs to the state, as its various organs race to find someone – anyone – to blame, while readily forgetting the victims let alone truth and justice. It is a cynical, even accusatory, depiction of a nation whose heroes are often just villains in disguise, modelling themselves on rapists, torturers and killers in a mimesis of murder.
strap: Lado Kvataniya’s feature debut is a gritty, twisty serial killer thriller, allegorising true crime in a mimesis of murder
© Anton Bitel