Move Over John Wick: Adilkhan Yerzhanov Unleashes A Bloody Tale Of Vengeance In His Latest Feature
Bleak, bloody, and bullet-riddled, the latest from prolific Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov plunges viewers into a godless, barren landscape in which hope is a worthless form of currency. Blending together the scorched earth chaos of Mad Max with the swagger of Golden Age westerns, and dashed with Nicolas Winding Refn styled nihilism, Steppenwolf is an existential genre exercise the probes deeper concerns about humanity below the surface. But despite its gripping execution, Yerzhanov’s philosophical musings struggle to resonate amidst the film’s endless body count.
With a cigarette permanently dangling out of his mouth, Berik Aitzhanov is the film’s Man With No Name. Well, actually, his name is Brajyuk, but it’s more of a nickname, and he doesn’t like it, and he’d prefer not be addressed at all. That’s what he tells Tamara (Anna Starchenko), a woman he pulls out of a brutal firefight at a police station between two warring factions that kicks off the picture. She’s arrived in a traumatic daze, seeking help to find her missing son Timka. The police detective and interrogator decides to take up her cause, at first because there’s a promise of money on other side. But when he finds out that Timka is in the hands of Taha, the region’s unofficial but wholly influential autocrat who ruthlessly murdered his family, the mission becomes personal.
The journey to find Timka and Taha sees Brajyuk and Tamara driving through a nameless, scorched earth wasteland roiled by internal conflict. No one is to be trusted, and almost everyone they meet winds up gifted with a bullet inside them. But their dynamic is hardly congenial. Meek and worn with worry, Tamara speaks in short, stammering sentences, managing only a few words at a time, when they can be understood at all. It’s all Brajyuk can do to drag her along, and he often resorts to literally slapping sense into Tamara in an effort to get her to communicate clearly. Tamara takes it, and a scar on her cheek suggests a life acclimated to violence, but these casual assaults are the least of Brajyuk’s brutality. An expert in torture, his worldview is straightforward: “There is no good.” And freed from any ethical compunctions, there is no limit to the means to get what he wants, and anyone who gets in between his goal and destination is expendable.
With three lengthy quotes from Herman Hesse’s novel inserted into the film (but not quite acting as chapters), Yerzhanov toys with philosophical themes, but they never cohere into anything substantial. Perhaps part of the problem is that in a world wracked with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the genocide in Gaza, there is a need for cinema to more directly interrogate its politics, rather than study them through a vague allegory coupled with a broad and loose moral centre. The film’s soupy positioning is further undermined by empty crucifixion imagery that opens and closes the picture, and Yerzhanov’s penchant to give in to action movie clichés, allowing Brajyuk to spit out the occasional darkly half-funny one-liner.
Even if its ideas are muddled, Steppenwolf satisfies well enough as a revenge and rescue picture. Director of photography Yerkіnbek Ptyraliyev delivers some arresting widescreen vistas, and beautifully captures the film’s multiple nods to The Searchers (you know the shot). The synth score by Galymzhan Moldanazar is an alluringly odd accompaniment that winks to John Carpenter. And with the pair onscreen for almost the entire running time, Aitzhanov and Starchenko capably carry the film even if their characters are merely ciphers. Which bring us back to Yerzhanov’s intentions with Steppenwolf, which succeeds as singular, stylized vision of action cinema but finds itself wandering and wanting when it takes aim at finding meaning in its blood-soaked display.
Reviewed on January 31st / 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam – Big Screen Competition. 102 mins.