Death of Stalin review Steve Buscem SImon Russell Beale Jeffrey TamborYear: 2018
Director(s): Armando Iannucci
Writer(s): Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Fabien Nury
Region of Origin: UK, France 

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 107 mins

Synopsis: Follows the Soviet dictator’s last days and depicts the chaos of the regime after his death. (Source)

I’ve had nightmares that make more sense than this”, says a character amidst a flurry of infighting, misinformation, tragedy and comic absurdity. Though the sentiment is fleeting and delivered with deadpan conviction, it’s a statement that best sums up Armando Iannucci’s latest film. Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, The Death of Stalin is a true punch in the gut, an intelligent comedy that uses its laughs to expose horror and political parallel. Already courting inevitable controversy in Russia, Iannucci’s film is one that miraculously feels universal, dissecting a power struggle that’s all too familiar within the world’s current political dissonance, and bringing us face-to-face with human truths too important to pass up.

As its title suggests, the film takes place in 1953 Russia, on the eve of Joseph Stalin’s death. Though no one can know what’s about to happen, Stalin’s Central Committee is already at odds, holding pent-up aggression towards each member hides their own political ambitions and agendas. While listening to the commissioned recording of a concerto, Stalin succumbs to a cerebral hemorrhage, and is discovered by his inner circle the next morning. Shocked and stunned, but ready to take the lead, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), George Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Stalin’s son and daughter, Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), respectively, scramble to maintain control of the country no matter what the cost.

No matter how you slice it, Iannucci’s film is satire at its sharpest and most unforgiving. Though there are glaring factual inconsistencies, what Iannucci and the source material have conjured up are worth it, digging deep into a political labyrinth that remains grounded, relevant and compulsively watchable. At a time when most comedies are mostly about nothing, Iannucci’s laughs are a cut above the rest. Here, the humor deconstructing an innate thirst for greed amidst an inept circle of political vultures feeding on their own flesh. From the film’s opening gag, which features a concerto do-over and the abduction of a robed conductor, the film is operating at full blast, going from one mishap to another with rhythmic precision and no shortage of outrageousness. The more we laugh, however, the more uncomfortable everything gets, exploring a society kept at bay by fear, as the film barrels headfirst into its bleak, sobering conclusion.

Death of Stalin review Steve Buscemi Jeffrey TamborOrchestrating the film’s dense machinations are a stacked ensemble that never skips a beat. Tambor’s Malenkov and Beale’s Beria are the story’s two figureheads, soaking up most of its focus through characters who mask frailty with clever misdirection. Buscemi is another standout as Khrushchev, turning in perhaps the most stealthy performance in more ways than one. Buscemi’s timing is second-to-none, giving the film its most grounded character, replete with masterful duality. Other personal faves include Rupert Friend’s Vasily and Andrea Riseborough’s Svetlana, each of whom take hysterics to a whole new level. That the film remains funny despite its savage nature is a feat in and of itself, owing this high-wire balancing act to a cast that plays things straight, yet wrings painful farce out of deadly serious ideas.

The Death of Stalin is fast, loose and as cathartic as a movie like this can be. Despite its specific characters and setting, it’s relatable all the way through, exploring the bonds between a people, its government, and those in power who control everything through savage neglect and callous selfishness. By basing the film’s politics firmly within the psyche of its broken, cartoonish characters, Iannucci uses past wrongs to illuminate a story that doesn’t seem outside the realm of something we’re doomed to repeat.

SG