Russia (2016) Dir. Aleksey Krasovskiy
When does the rationale “I’m only doing my job” lose its meaning and becomes a lame excuse for inexcusable behaviour? Not jobsworth traffic wardens and the like who refuse to bend the rules or turn a blind when common sense or emergencies call for it, rather overly ambitious types who think nothing of pushing boundaries to get results.
Arthur (Konstantin Khabensky) is number one at the high profile debt collection firm he works at. Whilst he has the gift of the gab to sweet talk anyone into accommodating him, Arthur’s tactics can also be a little underhanded and deceitful. As Arthur is about to leave the office for the night, he gets a call from an anonymous woman asking if he saw the video she sent him.
Choosing to ignore the call, Arthur’s phone starts lighting up with calls from friends and colleagues asking about a video clip sent to them in which Arthur features. Soon, the video is online bringing journalists and angry protestors to the office building. Arthur’s boss is forced to fire him to save the company’s reputation despite his insistence the video is a fake, earning a brief reprieve to find his tormentor and prove his innocence.
The key selling point of Collector is that Arthur is the only person we see on screen in full, with mostly everyone else appearing as voices via telephone. Apparently, this was already done in a 2013 British film Locke with Tom Hardy but this is presumably a first for Russian cinema. It might sound like a tough sell for most people but with the right script it can work, and Krasovskiy drives his film with exactly that.
I’ve not seen Locke so I can’t make any comparisons but I understand it involves a lot of driving. Collector stays within the confines of a modern, high-rise office block, Arthur’s office overlooking an illuminated metropolitan skyline. He does wander between other rooms – kitchen, balcony, storeroom, etc. – only leaving the building in the final shot, so this isn’t a single stage affair.
Yet Krasovskiy is able to create a sense of claustrophobia for Arthur despite the freedom to move about, as it is the situation itself that has him trapped. He is effectively confined to his office once the journalists, protestors, and police arrive but unlike other scenarios, Arthur has contact with the outside world and the means to, he hopes, solve his problem at his disposal.
Collector opens with Arthur in full swing, using his guile and sneakiness to get his clients (victims?) to pay up, although since many automatically hang up on him, Arthur has to be clever. Having done his homework, he will pose as the fictitious father of a boy who got a debtor’s daughter pregnant, or call out a woman pleading poverty on the cosmetic surgery she recently had done.
Unfortunately one woman feels Arthur went too far, claiming he hounded her husband to suicide over his debt, hence the video. The contents of this incriminating clip are vague, some sort of physical scuffle between Arthur and a child outside a nursery school; a sex tape has become a cliché now, allowing this one to engender a different kind of public outrage.
Once the clip goes viral, Arthur soon finds out who his friends are. His under pressure boss Roman (Aleksandr Tyutin) quickly rescinds his support, locks Arthur out of the company database, and forbids Arthur’s secretary Lisa (Valentina Lukashchuk) from helping him. Another friend Leo (Yevgeny Stychkin) says he’ll offer Arthur a job and get him into the database for a price, whilst security guard Eugene (Kirill Pletnyov) happily cons some ready cash out of Arthur to protect him.
This is a tale of karma. Arthur deserves to have his sneaky, borderline insidious actions come back to bite him, taking too much joy in snaring another hapless soul, whether they are deserving or not. That these people don’t know what Arthur looks like puts a modern twist on the debt collector character, using only his voice and quick wits to make someone cave in rather than violent intimidation.
But, when confronted by the aggrieved widow, Arthur maintains he was simply doing his job and didn’t put a gun to the deceased head or push off a rooftop. True, debts need to be paid and people need reminding of this if they end up in arrears but not all are on the take and each situation requires its own approach. It raises an interesting question about right and wrong, and whether this is an occasion where the lines are justifiably blurred.
Krasovskiy adds a subplot involving a stray dog Arthur took to a vet who now expects him to fund the treatment, which he refuses but as time goes on, Arthur realises he and the dog are the same – both abandoned and left to rot. Depending on your mileage this is either a cute parallel or heavy-handed metaphor to humanise Arthur and encourage sympathy for him, already achieved by others out to get their pound of flesh from him.
As the lone central on screen figure Konstantin Khabensky literally carries the entire film but does so in such a masterful way it hardly looks like any effort is being exerted on his part. That he is responding to voices only is irrelevant, the script is full of sharp, natural sounding dialogue that gives us plenty of idea of the characters behind the voices, making them sound as real as if they were there in person.
Running a ludicrously brisk 72 minutes, Collector is a taut burst of Hitchcockian drama that is genius in its simplicity yet has so much depth and nuance to it. Bolstered by a compelling and enigmatic solo lead performance and busy camerawork to avoid ennui settling in, it is the very definition of an oak tree growing from a tiny acorn. And yes, karma really is a bitch.