Siberia and the Hidden Wisdom of a Critical Failure
A brief (over) analysis of Keanu Reeves’ on-demand bomb, Siberia
Siberia, directed by Matthew Ross and starring Keanu Reeves, is one of many recently-released films gathering dust in the ever-expanding elephant graveyard of on-demand movie options. One critic deemed it “a fatalistic romance framed by a pointedly obscure heist plot that struggles to gain momentum before finally sputtering out.” Another called it “dull and deeply compromised.” That it has a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is unsurprising; the website’s critical consensus says the movie is “icily inhospitable to compelling performances or sensible narrative.” For all intents and purposes, Siberia appears to be a movie worth forgetting. Could the critics be missing something, though? What if there is more to the film that meets the eye? Viewed through a different lens, Siberia could be fertile ground for commentary.
There is, of course, the Keanu factor. In Siberia, Reeves plays Lucas Hill, an American diamond smuggler looking to move rare, blue diamonds in St. Petersburg, Russia. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go quite as planned. Lucas’s main Russian associate goes missing, and a handful of other criminals enter the scene, each with their own stake in the diamond deal. In search of his associate, Lucas finds himself waylaid in Mirny, in Eastern Siberia, where he quickly falls in love with a local woman named Katya.
From those scant details alone you might be able to construe a picture of what this film and Reeves’ character look like. Yes, the first few minutes of the film follow Lucas as he wordlessly broods at home, in an airport, and on a plane. Yes, Lucas has a vague history of violence. And, yes, beneath his rough edges, Lucas has a soft, conflicted emotional core. The familiarity of these elements, demonstrate that, along with the John Wick series, Reeves has very nearly solidified his own cinematic archetype.
There is meaning to the film beyond Reeves’ character, too, particularly in its narrative structure (WARNING: Spoilers Ahead. If you do not wish to know the film’s ending, please jump to the next paragraph). The story dances between thriller and romance, doing its best to intertwine the two. For every development in the crime narrative, there is a calm respite in which we watch Lucas and Katya’s relationship grow deeper. But, in a somewhat shocking turn, the film decides to dash our hopes. Lucas parts ways with Katya before having a final showdown with the bad guys in the Siberian woods, which leads us to expect that one of two endings will happen: Lucas will either win and reunite with Katya, or he will be killed, leaving behind a dramatic postscript that gives their love a sense of bittersweet closure. Yet, neither of those developments happens. Instead, during the showdown, one of the bad guys shoots Lucas in the chest, killing him instantly. After a brief close-up of Lucas, the film cuts to black and the credits roll. There is something oddly refreshing about this jarring, dark, and abrupt conclusion. It veers the story away from saccharine gestures, and represents a creative risk on behalf of Reeves and Ross.
But, then again, maybe that’s not entirely valid. Maybe the ending amounts to lazy screenwriting and an inability to construe a more meaningful and satisfying resolution. Maybe those critics are right. The film’s jumping between thriller and romance rarely feels smooth and cohesive; though it attempts to generate urgency, we never really feel it. There’s very little development to Lucas’s personal backstory (just why and how he knows how to handle guns, for example), nor do we know much about his marriage (an underutilized Molly Ringwald plays his wife), and why he cheats and falls so hard for Katya. The connections between the various criminals and their motivations are tenuous and vague, and that final showdown constitutes a lackluster, somewhat confusing punch. Maybe the reviews and their 6% consensus are right.
But there’s always more to the story, more to consider. Siberia’s critics might not have read the recent interviews with Reeves and Ross, in which Reeves (who was a producer on the film) discussed his fondness for producing and how the job relates to acting, or how Ross mentioned his watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky for inspiration during production. Before Siberia even begins, the film displays logo cards for ten different production companies (almost a minute and a half of screen time). One can’t help but wonder what kind of political and creative conflicts wreaked havoc on the film’s production. In that sense, it’s a wonder that the film even made it to completion.
Really, it’s a wonder that any film makes it to completion. Productions are wrought with so many challenges that any film, no matter how well or poorly-told, is its own small miracle. There can be an inherent one-sidedness to criticism, a sort of skewed perspective that refuses to acknowledge the magic that it takes to make a movie happen, and there’s an extent to which all films should be appreciated in their own way, even if it’s just to wonder over how a mediocre story managed to get made. After all, without the bad movies, there would be no great ones.
Curious to see more of how we at Fandor look at movies? Be sure to check out our recent reviews of films like “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “McQueen,” “Skyscraper,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and “Sorry to Bother You.”