Sundance 2018: The Death of Stalin, by David Bax
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Though Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin was written and shot before the election of Donald Trump, it should come as no surprise that the scenes involving a fascist, megalomaniac head of state feel guttingly familiar today. When the doctors are performing Stalin’s autopsy and his cabinet praise their late leader’s “incredibly strong, hard skull,” they might as well be reading our president’s Twitter feed. In the constant, devastating ridiculousness of the Trump age, satire and parody have become harder to achieve. Which makes it all the more impressive that The Death of Stalin is so hilarious.
When the story begins, Stalin is still alive, his fellow party heads (played by Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin and Simon Russell Beale, in what ought to be a legacy-cementing performance) jockeying for his approval while a low-level official (Paddy Considine) holds an entire orchestra and audience hostage in order to re-record a concerto for the leader’s approval. That night, in a fit of either outrage or joy—it’s hard to tell—Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has a brain hemorrhage. By the end of the next day, he’ll be dead. This is the prologue. The rest of Iannucci’s story is divided into chapters, based on the legal articles that dictate how the government is to function after its leader’s death and detailing the elevation of Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) into the new chief role and the machinations of Lavrentiy Beria (Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi) to undermine him.
In a wise move reminiscent of The Last Temptation of Christ, all the actors maintain their natural accents, lending the movie an immediacy that’s difficult to overlook. The allusions to Scorsese don’t end there, as Buscemi plays Khrushchev like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas if he were dangerously smart. Buscemi is among the funniest actors we don’t immediately think of as comedic and this is one of the best showcases of his career. Despite being, at heart, an ensemble piece, he often can’t help but feel like the lead, given what we know about the character’s future. But don’t overlook the supporting performances by Jason Isaacs as the head of the army and Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s children, the latter of whom gets one of the best lines of the movie when, at his father’s funeral, he insists, “I know the drill. Smile, shake hands and try not to call them cunts.”
Cinematographer Zac Nicholson deserves to be noted alongside the great cast. His contribution is essential, maintaining the visceral urgency of other Iannucci projects like The Thick of It and In the Loop while also providing a handsome, high-contrast presentation that makes it feel like a raucous comedy has broken out in the midst of a major, prestigious historical drama.
Perhaps raucous is not the best word to describe the comedy in The Death of Stalin. Maybe it would be better summed up by the term “dark as fuck.” I certainly can’t think of any other comedy in film history in which so many people get shot point blank in the head. It becomes a kind of running punchline of its own. Yet, Iannucci’s great skill is to never let you forget, even when you’re cracking up, how monstrous these people were and the deplorable results their actions had. It’s so tragic it’s funny.