There is no murder in paradise. This mantra is passed among the higher ranks of (state security) MGB officers in the Soviet Union. It’s belted out over the loudspeakers and breathed down unto the masses as the closest thing to doctrine. This mantra is whispered amongst the workers, sometimes shakily, as secret police abduct yet another friend, colleague or family member off the streets, never to be seen or heard from again.
In Child 44, we gaze into the paralyzing maw of a Totalitarian nightmare. Through the eyes of war-hero-turned-MGB-agent Leo Demidov (played by Tom Hardy) and school teacher Raisa (Noomi Rapace), we see two sides of a fabrication that wants to lull us into a state of euphoric safety but cannot help but breathe terror down our necks. Their world is one of the dreariest we’ve seen on screen in a long time, and as the pair battle against a government that says murders cannot exist in a communist paradise, they’ll sacrifice everything to bring to an end a series of child murders across the Soviet Union.
Child 44 is a grimy movie. It’s muddied with sweat, blood, erosion, and a human spirit that burrows itself away, somewhere far beneath the dull color of the crumbled buildings and almost lifeless soil. But it’s filmed expertly, and even in this dirt and decay, the movie comes off as darkly poetic. There’s beauty in this pain, and as an audience, we clamor for, digging deep into Child 44’s backdrop to grasp at some sort of synthesis that ties the whole movie together, that gives us some comfort in knowing what we need to do to avoid this terrible world.
What we unearth is a warning. This is the kind of world we build when we outsource the entirety of our security and safety to the state, when we give up our agency to an institution that maintains itself by disappearing dissidents unafraid to speak out. In this world, we all maintain the illusion in public. We all repeat the mantra. But in our homes, we hide behind the doors and pray. We wait for the MGB agents to come, tipped off by someone abducted last week, and we make sure our families know we love them as our doors are kicked open.
In a world where whole communities live in fear of each other, of secret police and of spies, predators come out to feed, and they come in the worst form — serial child murderers. The follies of a community that isn’t trusting of itself rings clear. In order to survive, thrive, and attain that paradise, we need to be able to confide in our neighbors.
Though clear most of the run time, there are moments where this theme is garbled in Child 44. While Leo and Raisa pursue the killer, there are quite a few subplots that serve in building this Totalitarian backdrop and developing characters, as well as providing some tense obstacles. One could argue the plot comes across as convoluted, as not all subplots are neatly bundled together, though the creative team does its best. The result is an imperfect film, one that’s beautiful and compelling but bearing minor annoyances.
Another criticism is the dialect choice. For better or for worse, all the actors in this film speak English in stereotypical foreign accents. At first this comes across as jarring, as if every character stepped off the boat from a cliché James Bond villain cocktail mixer, but the consistency of this manner of speaking throughout Child 44 ultimately serves to add to the overall atmosphere and mystique, lending credence to the idea that this spy thriller has a mood more akin to a classic Universal horror movie. Again, imperfect, but in this case, this issue arguably works.
At the end of the day, convoluted or not, cliché accents or not, all these roads point toward the greater nightmare of the Iron Curtain, to the veil of safety and the underlying fear tucked behind it. Child 44 is a plunge into mysticism as much as it is historical fiction. It’s a thrilling nightmare, one that scares us more than any recent Hollywood horror film has, and it’s a warning sign. “This, too, can come to pass if we’re not careful,” the movie tells us.”If we don’t pay attention to the encroachments on civil liberties by our well-meaning lawmakers, and if we don’t go the extra mile and build communal bonds with our neighbors, this nightmare can materialize.”
And if that frightful day ever arrives, we’ll already know the mantra that will keep us on the streets just a few minutes longer — there is no murder in paradise.