“Leviathan,” Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s unconventional and enthralling documentary about a New Bedford-based fish trawler in the North Atlantic opens portentously with a quote from the Book of Job. “Upon earth there is not his like,” it reads in part, referring to the dreaded deep sea creature Leviathan, “who is made without fear.”
It is a creature like the great white whale of “Moby-Dick,” pursued by the obsessed Ahab and his ship the Pequod. Here, though, the situation seems reversed. With its repetitive images of netted, gasping, beheaded, and gutted sea life, the film suggests that the beast is the human hunter himself. The trawler and its crew and the rapacious industry they represent embody the Leviathan described in the 17th-century book of that title by Thomas Hobbes, the vast monstrous entity of human civilization to which all things are obeisant and which devours all things.
That’s one interpretation, anyway. “Leviathan” allows for many. It is part Rorschach test and part theme park ride as the filmmakers shoot from the strangest places and from such odd perspectives that much of the film consists of trying to figure out what the heck is going on. The camera submerges in the water, with red-tinged fish and meaty debris zooming past like asteroids seen from a spaceship, or it pans upward to reveal a huge flock of seagulls upside down, their wings interlocked like in an engraving by M.C. Escher. Coupled with the groanings, creakings, bangings, and gurglings on a soundtrack that David Lynch might envy, these skewed scenes make this fishing trawler seem monstrous indeed.
Devoid of commentary or even straightforward visuals, the film doesn’t make it easy for the viewer, and it seems a pointed alternative to other documentaries on similar subjects, avoiding the reductive narratives of such films as “Winged Migration” (2001) or “March of the Penguins” (2005). Not to mention the faux-melodrama of the Discovery Channel reality series on the same topic, “Deadliest Catch.” That program is heard on the “Leviathan” soundtrack, in an amusing scene that shows a crewman staring off camera at what is apparently a TV set broadcasting it. The show’s histrionic voice-over cuts to that of a laxative commercial with the viewer’s blank expression unchanged.
Castaing-Taylor had previously directed (with Ilisa Barbash) the extraordinary “Sweetgrass” (2009), a similarly unorthodox documentary about sheepherding. Unlike that film, with its long shots of grand landscapes, “Leviathan” depicts circumstances that are cramped and claustrophobic. The ocean is seen only in glimpses, and the tight shots often make the human subjects indistinguishable from the details of the vessel — or its catch. This confinement and dehumanization is similar to that in Paravel’s previous film, “Foreign Parts” (2010), a documentary about the closing of a sprawling junkyard in New Jersey. Here the two sensibilities complement one another elegantly to explore a beguiling, enigmatic, and brutal microcosm of our consumer culture’s dark side.