The stunning scenery of southern Kazakhstan is the setting for an emotionally bruising Euro-Asian western in Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s powerful Goliath. A film that grabs your interest and only pulls you in further as it goes along.
The Kazakh village Karatas has long been subjugated by a criminal boss called Poshaev (Daniyar Alshinov). He provides housing and jobs for the locals but will ruthlessly execute anyone who opposes him. This is the lesson pauper Arzu (Berik Aytzhanov) is about to learn first-hand – his wife Karina has informed the police about the crimes that are taking place there. Arzu is a cripple; now, he must raise his little daughter alone. He is so helpless and grief-stricken that he doesn’t even seem to be contemplating revenge.
The psychological bashing that Arzu appears to take in Goliath is immense; in one unbelievable yet believable scene, Poshaev comes to his wife’s funeral and simultaneously apologises and reasons with Arzu that he was within reason for doing what he did. Then he offers him a job; his manipulation skills know no bounds. He has his victim feel the anger of the death of a loved one and the fear of thinking he is next while also being forced to be thankful to the killer.
This battering continues throughout the film as Arzu is mentally broken down so he can be a suitable minion for Poshaev. He and his daughter are forced out of their home, told to leave their village, and then used as bait. Then Poshaev has the audacity to say that he heard some locals beat up Arzu when it was his own men and that he will sort him out with a new home—continually putting another layer of pain onto a man who almost ruined him.
Continually Arzu is told about revenge, everyone thinks he will try and commit it against Poshaev, yet this thought only begins to grow because everyone is pushing him along that track. By making his life worse with every passing day, they may have accidentally created someone they never bargained for. Yet the idea of Poshaev’s power in the area is also a strong theme in Goliath. He has all of the villagers wrapped around his finger, as he either ensures that they are employed at the mine or that they are looked after in other ways. If someone touts on another villager, they are paid handsomely for it.
His pressure has him almost run a dictatorship; there is a reason he was so easily able to get the police report about him that Karina issued at the beginning of the film. No one is safe unless he tells them they are, he is doing his best to make sure that his reign continues, but there are inklings that his grasp is not as tight as he hoped, as if a bit of desperation is sneaking in. But, of course, power never truly lasts; what needs to be asked is whether Poshaev will be able to keep a hold of his.
What strikes you about Goliath is how the story could be lifted and placed anywhere in the world, probably at any time in the world, and it would still connect in the same fashion because of how authentic it feels. These gangs purposely try to break down the weakest or those that have wronged them to ensure that they never come in their way again. By physically and psychological doing this, the victim gets brought down to the level of the gang, and the gang get ever stronger. Adilkhan Yerzhanov has just placed his version of this story in the rural parts of Kazakhstan.
This gives Goliath an almost modern Western feel; the dust continually blows around in the film as we watch characters live in some gorgeous if desolate, landscapes. Houses are off on their own in the middle of nowhere, which results in a great-looking opening scene as Poshaev’s gang comes for Arzu’s family. He gives us a film that sometimes feels like a documentary that we should not be able to see. It is smart filmmaking as it brings an authenticity that hits you all the more. But it isn’t just the cinematography and story that keeps you glued to the screen. The two performances from Berik Aytzhanov and Daniyar Alshinov are fantastic.
Aytzhanov’s portrayal of the broken Arzu, at times, gets close to breaking you emotionally. He is pulled from pillar to post throughout Goliath. It is a powerful all-round performance from the actor and, like Alshinov, will have you out looking for more of his work. Alshinov does wonders as well here, playing a relentless gang boss who is just starting to fray at the seams. The aforementioned scene at Arzu’s wife’s funeral is key to how good he is as an actor. He has to appear menacing yet also forgiving and sympathetic to his victim. It is a marvellous turn from him, and anytime he is on screen, he commands your attention; his and Aytzhanov’s final moments, together with that slight, but meaningful nod, are just perfect.
A choice that Yerzhanov makes is that he chooses not to have any music in his film; everything is diegetic until the finale when suddenly a synth score comes in. It is a peculiar choice as it wasn’t exactly necessary, nor does it help enhance those final moments, yet there it is. With that said, Goliath is a terrific watch that has you invested from the opening scene onwards.
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