Nightwatch is likely the first Russian-made film to reach U.S. multiplexes. The supernatural thriller is both an obvious and an interesting choice for such a distinction: Its surface flash shrieks box-office, while its morally murky characters promise to gobsmack a mass audience stateside.
The story we're told begins in 1992 -- shorthand for "metaphoric post-Soviet trauma." Fifteen years of Russian arthouse films have confronted the subject already; why should Nightwatch, an amped-up flick about modern-day vampires, be any different?
The protagonist is Anton, a Muscovite shlub who solicits a conjure woman over a soured relationship with his pregnant girlfriend. It's a bad choice that ends with him learning that he's an "other" -- a new recruit into an "eternal war" between the armies of darkness and light.
Anton chooses "light," but both camps are vampires, cast as cops policing the other crew's worst impulses. Then, nightwatchman Anton's self-defense killing of a daywatch miscreant threatens the truce that's existed for Tolkienesque millennia.
Wrap that into an apocalyptic plot involving a seemingly innocent child victim, a virgin unknowingly afflicted with a curse, a Ghostbusters-like vortex over an apartment building and a massive power outage.
To those accustomed to thrillers that are simple and orderly, Nightwatch, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, might look a mess. Its tone careens from cold-hearted bursts of grisly violence to Romantic sentiment, from macabre humor (think American Werewolf in London) to supernatural mumbo-jumbo. The visuals are often striking, complete with copious CGI effects, but story elements materialize out of the ether, and it's halfway through the film before our nominal anti-hero gets a viable sidekick, let alone a personality.
But much of that confusion is likely intentional in a film that's about chaos disguised as order -- a "truce" that merely blesses the lawlessness we've seen depicted in so many post-Soviet films. Two opposing forces struggle for power under guise of keeping order -- but both use blameless humans as "live bait," and as the film goes on they barely become easier to tell apart. (Nightwatchmen tend toward gruff and grizzled, while daywatch types are more plain sleazy.)
Eventually, cued perhaps by actor Konstantin Khabensky's soulful eyes and sensuous lips, we start pulling harder for Anton. But then the film pulls the rug out: He's revealed as another iteration of the bad father, the parent who's betrayed his children. It's a figure that echoes through post-breakup Russian cinema as loudly as the gunshots of gangsters and ruthless new-capital moguls.
Back home, Nightwatch was a record-setting smash. It'll be interesting to see how American audiences react to the moral ambiguity in a film whose pithiest epigram is, "It's easier to destroy the light in yourself than to defeat the darkness all around." In Russian, with subtitles.