An inscrutable yet undeniably direct film, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4 is a relentless experience. Beginning with a shot of four construction tools pounding the concrete like some prehistoric mechanical dinosaur as the dogs on the street yowl, it never lets on what a scene’s focal point should be. The camera stays at an uncomfortably close distance to its characters, allowing them neither privacy nor dignity as scenes assault the viewer with a fingernails-on-chalkboard attention grabbing intensity.
It begins in a Moscow bar with four characters. Three customers and a bartender wade through the dim light, an archipelago of isolation. A piano tuner pretending to be a geneticist tells a tall tale of clones. A prostitute pretending to work in “advertising” bums cigarettes and watches her companions with naïve cynicism. A government minister — a Vladimir Putin doppelganger— tells of providing mineral water for higher ups in the ministry. In reality he traffics meat. In reality all of 4’s Russians call to mind dead meat, or perhaps ghosts. They glide through a crumbling corner of the world, haunting, but leaving no discernible traces.
From her late night encounter in the bar Marina, the prostitute then travels to the countryside to attend a funeral for (is it a friend, her clone? It’s not clear). There the meditative story takes a detour off the highway and bounces along a weed-infested back road. Imagine if John Cassevetes had made Deliverance. Imagine if you woke up one day to the nightmare that is Mother Russia. Khrzhanovsky’s Russia is afflicted with a sort of dementia, in its wrinkled hide, swilling moonshine and devouring animal flesh with a stomach turning grotesqueness. Not a pretty picture.