"The Death of Stalin" (2017) Review
I don't know how to tackle something so singularly bleak and funny all at once.
The Soviet Union under Stalin is one of the darkest moments in recent history, a nightmare of constant murder and other crimes against humanity, and setting a dark comedy in the aftermath of his death is one of those decisions that could have been ridiculously ill-advised in execution. That's why I feel so lucky to have seen The Death of Stalin, because not only is it an incredibly funny movie, it's a satire that understands the horror of its subject. There's a ton of great humor that takes the edge off, but it never forgets where the reality of its story leads. And in its boldest move, it actually takes us there.
In 1953, Joseph Stalin suffered a brain hemorrhage that eventually killed him. That's the singular fact that I know about the true death of Joseph Stalin, and this is represented in the film. If you're coming to The Death of Stalin hoping for an accurate reconstruction of the timeline in Stalin's death, and the aftermath that ensued, well... Don't do that. It takes several of the real details and repackages them into a story that has a brilliant and horrific end point. It's the Monty Python school of political humor, twisting reality in a way that reflects the absurdity right back onto the audience.
Here, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) doesn't last too long. His body is first discovered by the head of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), a ruthless man who immediately springs into action to try and assume control. He assumes control by using the Deputy General Secretary, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), a man that can be generously described as an oaf. Next on the scene is Moscow Party Head, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who seeks to reform the government. Several other players, from the the Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), to Stalin's daughter and son, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), to even a world class pianist named Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), all factor into a mess of backstabbing and scheming to the top.
This is one of the purest versions of a dark comedy, with an emphasis on the dark. Every scene featuring Beria in a Soviet interrogation facility involves a chorus on gunshots as people are executed off screen constantly as the simplest example, but even the offscreen executions slowly move on screen as the film gets deeper into its runtime. Speaking of Beria, Simon Russell Beale is too good at playing the character, one of the movie's biggest pieces of slime, and that's saying a lot considering that the cast as almost no sympathetic characters whatsoever (at least in the Council of Ministers). Jeffrey Tambor is great as a deadpan oaf (when is he not?), but the actor who walks away with this movie is Steve Buscemi.
Steve Buscemi is a veteran actor. That doesn't need to be said, but I feel like bringing it up because he pulls out damn near everything in his acting arsenal as Nikia Khrushchev. He's a hilarious performer with great comedic timing, but when his character takes a dark turn that ultimately leads the film's entire tone, he carries it on his shoulders like a titan. His unmoving face in one scene speaks more than whole other scenes packed with dialogue.
As with all comedy film reviews, I won't say too much about the jokes, because there's nothing worse than someone telling you a good joke secondhand, but I will say that it has several running jokes that had me howling each time they went off. But I'm going to put an aside in this review about watching the film in theaters.
I saw it with an audience of roughly twenty-five people, and we were all laughing a lot throughout the film. But every once and a while, the laughter would stop. The silence from the audience was deafening, as if the air had been completely sucked out of the room. The laughter would resume usually only a scene later, but The Death of Stalin is horrifically bleak at times, and the air definitely left the room during the finale,
I don't want that to scare people off though. I love The Death of Stalin because it wields absurdist tragedy and satirical comedy with unwavering precision. Just when you think the laughs are going to keep coming, they stop with a staggering reminder of the horror that came with one of the darkest chapters of modern history. It's already a contender for my Favorite Films of 2018 list and you can bet that I'm buying this on Blu-Ray as soon as it's available.