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The Execution review: A throwback police thriller of the best kind [Fantastic Fest 2021]

Nikoloz Tavadze in The Execution.
Nikoloz Tavadze in The Execution. Pic credit: XYZ Films

The Execution blisters its audience in dread as a decade-long mystery haunts a Russian police chief. There is something to be said about the shortcuts we take in life, and this unconventional police procedural depicts the slow unraveling of someone trying to reach an end result.

The Russian film, which Lado Kvatanya directs, is the most twisty and grim police procedural this writer has seen since Prisoners. Every shot feels thick with atmosphere, and at any point, the police hunting their madman might do something equally as terrible as the man they are after.

This is the kind of adult thriller that America needs.

The Execution review

The film stars Nikoloz Tavadze as police chief Issa Valentinovich who has recently been promoted. But before the champagne can be popped, he receives a call that a serial killer he has hunted for years has tried killing again. Even worse, Issa convicted the wrong man years before the resurgence.

The killer in question takes his victims (all women) and stuffs their mouths with soil, followed by viciously assaulting and knifing them repeatedly.

Similar to films like Dunkirk, the writing takes an approach in a Nolan style, jumping back and forth in time, showing various stages of the investigation. All the while, each timeline shows Issa as a man eager for an end result to an unfortunate extreme. He also carries this ambition home to his unhappy marriage.

The Execution has different procedural flavors to it. Some aspects feel heavily inspired by David Fincher’s Zodiac, where someone gets heavily obsessed in a case for years. As stated before, the tone feels ruthlessly painful in that it stays in a continuing dread of uncertainty. And in the same vein as Denis Villeneuve’s brutal film, the movie blurs the lines between the monsters and the heroes chasing them.

Nikoloz Tavadze as police chief Issa Valentinovich in The Execution.
Nikoloz Tavadze as police chief Issa Valentinovich in The Execution. Pic credit: XYZ Films

While this reviewer may have watched the film remotely, this feels like a movie demanding an audience. With each chapter and story reveal, something new and thrilling is communicated for the story. Much like a great novel, each chapter closes with a revelation that will either leave one breathless or gasping.

This is the type of film that America used to make in the ’90s and ’00s. Those brutal thrillers were explicitly aimed at an adult audience and no one else. This film is similar to films like Se7en and Silence of the Lambs or even police dramas like Narc and Training Day.

All this to say, America, please take note and bring adult-oriented thrillers back to the mainstream box office.

The only ingredient that might bother some viewers is the bouncing timelines throughout the narrative. As the story unfolds, it conveys the time period rather confusingly at first. For instance, it will show a year, and in the viewers’ minds, the year shown is the setting. And as the new timeline is superimposed – whether it is 1991, 1988, 1981 – the last two digits change in the middle of a new sequence.

And as it jumps forward and backward in time, it’s up to the viewer to stay focused and keep all the threads together.

The choice is not without purpose. Each timeline switch from the past to present is supposed to communicate an event that either causes a change for the future or is meant to illustrate the character change itself. This creative decision shows the wear and tear this investigation has inflicted on Issa and his men.

Image from The Execution.
Image from The Execution. Pic credit: XYZ Films

Furthermore, this shows how each compromise, lie, or immoral act to catch this madman has caused a switch in their moral compass over time. And it’s within this compare and contrast that the movie becomes haunting in unexpected ways.

The result is a film that is one of the most vicious examinations of how deceit and anger can cause moral character to decay.

The Execution wraps to a boiling point that is somewhat surprising. And all of its weaving and puzzling through one fierce and amoral scenario after the next leads to a conclusion that will capture one’s thoughts long after it concludes. All of it is earned and feels entirely organic.

It’s a fantastic screenplay and an even better-directed film that should stay on everyone’s radar after Fantastic Fest concludes.

The Execution at Fantastic Fest 2021: Should you watch?

The Execution is a dark and chilling police procedural we rarely get anymore. It rises up to the heights of films that blur the lines between heroes and monsters, much like Prisoners and I Saw the Devil.

The non-linear story mechanics may confuse some, but those who can keep it all together are in for a treat. As the violent puzzle pieces fit together, it all wraps to an unnerving finale that will leave you breathless.

For more film festival coverage, we recommend our spotlights on movies like Here Before and Raging Fire.

Stay tuned for more Fantastic Fest coverage at Monsters & Critics.

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