Domovoy / The Ghost (Karen Oganesyan, 2008): Russia

Reviewed by Linda Schad. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Considering Domovoy (The Ghost) is only the second feature by Armenian-Russian director, Karen Oganesyan, this modern noir admirably demonstrates an outstanding directorial command of his cinematic medium, and is well worth suffering through almost two hours of distracting subtitles to arrive at the surprise ending of this psychological thriller. Is it really the end?

This story is a clever blending of Russia’s two main preoccupations: the criminal underground and the literary world. The opening scene has Anton Prachenko (Konstantin Khabenskiy), at a sparsely attended book signing in a Moscow bookstore, where he is attempting to sell copies of his latest novel, The Revenge of the Ghost (a story we learn via flashback was lifted wholesale out of the crime pages of the daily newspaper because he is plagued by writer’s block and is unable to come up with stories of his own). Suddenly pulled back to the present, Anton is approached by a shadowy figure who wants a signed copy of his book. While Anton is autographing the title page, the customer asks if he has ever killed anyone. Moments later, Anton observes this very same man in the street right outside the bookstore window committing a double murder with icy, calculated precision.

Shocked, but still suffering from writer’s block, Anton is later approached by the killer, who agrees to share the sordid details of his professional life, if Anton will agree to hide the mysterious assassin (Valdimir Mashkov). Soon, the hit man and Anton are inseparably linked, as the real “Ghost” becomes Anton’s muse.

Anton is fascinated by this hit man’s real life exploits within the criminal underworld, a world Anton has only previously written about, but about which he has had no real knowledge. Anton is slowly drawn deeper and deeper into this seedy underworld, first learning to shoot a handgun, and eventually agreeing to act out an actual assassination.

Although somewhat predictable, this well-paced, tension-filled, cat and mouse story will still hold you on the edge of your seat throughout, and reward you with a wonderful pay-off in the final scene.

Although the Santa Barbara International Film Festival showing is considered the US premiere of Domovoy (The Ghost), it was also well received at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Nevertheless, it is my hope that Santa Barbara is only the first of many future US venues, because this film contains many solid performances, especially by Valdimir Mashkov (the Ghost), who portays an extremely believable hit man, with almost cat-like, James-Bond smoothness of the paid assassin, as well as by Konstantin Khabenskiy (Anton), who admirably portrays a man who not only struggles constantly with a serious lack of confidence but also battles continually with his inner demons. Likewise, the actors who play the three main police investigators round out this superb cast of characters.

Other talents to watch for in future films are Oleg Malovichko and Serey Yadakov (the screenwriters) who were responsible for this very tight, well-crafted story; Zaur Bolotaev (the cinematographer) who created an overall dark and eery mood with the predominate use of gray filters, coupled with sporadic, but shocking splashes of red and orange, and the judicial use of hand-held camera work; as well as David Abuladze (the composer) and Insight (the musical group) who were responsible for this film’s original soundtrack.

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