Most of us have issues with our family, but Viktor Shamanov could give us all a run for our money. Writer/director Oleg Pogodin’s “Dom: A Russian Family” is a glorious epic about a Russian mobster who returns home after a twenty-five year absence to bid farewell to his family prior to retirement. The dense narrative builds slowly, covering more characters than a “Game of Thrones” episode, but Pogodin clearly knows what he’s doing. “Dom: A Russian Family” is as brutal as it is beautiful and it belongs in the same breath as films like “The Deer Hunter” and “The Godfather.”
Viktor Shamanov (Sergey Garmash) is an aging gangster who is ready to retire. Unfortunately in his line of work, there are only two ways to do that: disappear or die. But before he goes, he is compelled to make amends with the entire Shamanov clan, whom he left rotting in their farmhouse in the steppes years ago. The oldest of five, Viktor utilizes his grandfathers 100th birthday celebration to reconnect with each of his siblings individually, including those that are too young to remember having met him. Some regard him with awe, some with big brotherly love and some with resentment making for some pretty intense conversations at the dinner table.
To further complicate matters, Viktor’s enemies have caught wind of the family reunion and plan to crash it. And they’re bringing along plenty of semi-automatic party favors. Meanwhile, a mysterious former paramour called Svetlana makes her way to the farmhouse, determined to rendezvous with her old flame even if she has to walk there in stilettos and a mini-dress.
There are few better settings for a film about a decaying family than a crumbling farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Once upon a time, Viktor supported the Shamanovs with income from his business, but when he went to jail, the money stopped coming and the family has been in decline ever since. Many family members blame Viktor for their problems, but it seems more likely that the men who stayed behind are to blame.
Viktor’s male role models (his father and grandfather) were cruel, hard men. That he was able to retain any compassion despite his upbringing and career choice is a testament to his own character. He escaped while the rest of his family remained on the farm, festering in anger, resentment and disappointment. Viktor’s career as a criminal is an improvement over the Shamanov legacy. The inevitable ultra-violent climax is less tragedy than a long overdue cleanse of a poisoned land.
Essential to a good epic is its ability to keep track of numerous characters without leaving any of them under-developed. Pogodin accomplishes this by introducing them through their relationship (or lack thereof) with Viktor. By the end, we are very familiar with everyone’s motivations and invested in the outcome. Viktor is the most developed character and so much more than a “gangster with a heart of gold.” The genesis of his brutality is evident, as is his commitment to his family. He knows he made mistakes, but he sees no point in dwelling on them. Despite his desire to leave his life of crime behind, he will do whatever he must to protect his family even as he is the one who put them in danger.
There’s a lot of darkness in “Dom,” but it somehow manages to retain the vivacity of a Tarantino film. This is due in large part to Sergey Garmash’s charismatic grizzled squint. Garmash joins the great congregation of mum cinematic badasses and conveys more with one forehead wrinkle than Vin Diesel could in a lengthy monologue. The Russians just may have Sicilians beat in terms of mob awesomeness. They take everything up a notch further than even Emeril would dare. I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase “instant classic” before, but for “Dom: A Russian Family,” it categorically applies.