Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This month: The A.V. Club atones for its sins of omission, recommending the best movies of the year that we didn’t review.
There’s never been a war movie quite like White Tiger. Pitched somewhere between absurdist deadpan and the kind of awed, fogbound mysticism that is largely unique to Russian cinema, the opening movement—and the film feels very much like something composed in musical movements, rather than acts—follows a severely burned tank crewman as he is recovered from a battlefield, miraculously heals, and is then sent back to the front. He has no memories, so the Red Army doctors issue him a generic name, Ivan Ivanovich, and identity. This is World War II, the dog days of the Eastern Front, and, as one Soviet officer points out, you don’t need to know who you are to operate a tank.
The thing about Ivan Ivanovich (Aleksei Vertkov) is that he can hear what tanks are saying—or at least he says he can, with the kind of preternatural confidence popularly associated with sociopaths and prophets. He says war machines have souls and their own god, a gold T-34 tank that sits in the sky. And, perhaps because they can’t think of a better option, the Soviet command ends up putting him in charge of a three-man crew tasked with tracking down and defeating a mysterious German Tiger tank, painted ghostly white, which seems to appear out of nowhere. Major Fedotov (Vitaliy Kishchenko) serves as Ivan Ivanovich’s handler.
Vertkov and Kishchenko—veteran stage actors who both made their film debuts in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment—thoroughly inhabit their characters, investing psychological depth into an overtly metaphorical scenario. (The scene where Ivan Ivanovich explains that he doesn’t want to find out if he has a wife, because doing so would take away the pension his widow’s presumably been receiving, is a perfect example of acting that’s utterly convincing without necessarily being naturalistic.) Their performances anchor an animist view of warfare, equally engrossing and puzzling, its air of unresolvable mystery reinforced by Yuri Poteenko’s trembling, rumbling orchestral score and by director Karen Shakhnazarov’s use of long, swirling Steadicam takes.
What’s surprising, given the movie’s mythopoeic tone, is that White Tiger happens to be a first-rate, old-school action picture. Shakhnazarov—an important figure in Perestroika-era Soviet cinema who’s little known in the States—has been the head of Mosfilm, Russia’s oldest and largest studio, since the late 1990s, giving him unparalleled firepower (literally; Mosfilm’s World War II armory is legendary) to make what is essentially an art film. The result is an esoteric, personal vision of large-scale war—and one that didn’t make as much as a blip when it finally arrived in the U.S. this year, going straight to DVD.
Availability: White Tiger is available on DVD, which can be purchased through Amazon.