How do you catch a murderer in a country where murder, officially, doesn’t exist? That’s the question that keeps tripping up the characters in Daniel Espinosa’s grim, ambitious new thriller, “Child 44”, a film in which the oppressive institutional anti-logic of Stalin’s USSR is far more threatening than the serial killer on the loose.
Adapted from Tom Rob Smith’s bestselling novel, “Child 44” features Tom Hardy as Leo Demidov, a ruthless secret-police investigator who is so efficient at snaring “traitors”, and so loyal to the Party, that he has earnt a swanky Moscow apartment and a beautiful wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace). His rise through the ranks stalls only when his best friend’s young son is found dead by a railway track. All the forensic evidence suggests that a Russian Jack the Ripper is picking off children, but Leo’s superior officer (Vincent Cassel) declares that the boy was hit by a train: murder, after all, is a “capitalist disease” with no place in Stalin’s socialist Utopia. If Leo asks to look at the autopsy report, he will be committing treason and inviting execution—especially if his envious lieutenant (Joel Kinnaman) has anything to do with it. But after a lifetime’s profitable obedience, not even Leo can keep ignoring the chasm between the real truth and the government-approved version.
His subsequent investigations take him out of Moscow and into a Stygian industrial wasteland, thick with mud, factory smoke and despair. But his actual detective work is so basic that it would barely fill an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”. Leo and a fellow officer (Gary Oldman) notice that numerous bodies have been dumped in a particular location, and within minutes they’ve found the perpetrator. The simplicity of the case may seem like the film’s biggest weakness, but it’s key to its anti-totalitarian argument: if it weren’t for the USSR’s bureaucratic paranoia, the killer would have been brought to justice years earlier. Besides, the film’s screenwriter, Richard Price, has imported a lot more from Smith’s long novel than its central mystery. You have to go back to “LA Confidential” to find a thriller with as many plot strands, characters, shocking twists and atmospheric period details. The only recent contenders are “Girl With a Dragon Tattoo”, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Headhunters”—and, like “Child 44”, they're all directed by Scandinavians.
As the phenomenal cast list might suggest, the film is packed with heavyweight performances, but it’s Hardy who dominates: the character of Leo could have been written to fit his trademark combination of hulking menace and haunted, wet-eyed vulnerability. In the film’s chilling early scenes, this uniformed Grim Reaper is the last person in the world you would want to have knocking at your door in the middle of the night. But Hardy, his voice cracking and his shoulders hunched, shows that Leo has been infantilised by a regime that demands total belief in government fairy tales. The film’s title may refer to the serial killer’s 44th young victim, but it could apply to the childlike Leo, too.
Rapace’s Raisa, on the other hand, is introduced as a delicate trophy wife, so it’s refreshing when she turns out to be the story’s strongest, cleverest and bravest character. There are too many films in which the heroes’ wives or girlfriends are primary-school teachers, but in this instance her job couldn't be more appropriate. As well as everything else, “Child 44” is a coming-of-age story. Raisa is the teacher, and Leo is her overgrown pupil.
Child 44 released in Britain and America April 17th