An orphaned teenager with a superhuman resistance to pain joins a criminal blackmail gang in this timely thriller from ‘Zoology’ director Ivan I. Tverdovskiy.
Like a more medically plausible version of Wade Wilson from Deadpool, the teenage antihero in Jumpman suffers from a rare genetic condition that makes him insensitive to pain. This makes him not only potentially dangerous but also eminently exploitable, as youthful Russian auteur Ivan I. Tverdovskiy suggests by using congenital analgesia as a metaphor for his homeland’s current sickness under Vladimir Putin’s crooked cronyism regime. Inspired by real events, this noirish thriller grew out of a marathon ongoing documentary project that Tverdovskiy is making about the Russian police.
World premiered last week at the Karlovy Vary festival, where it won a special jury commendation, Jumpman is bleaker in tone and more conventional in style than Tverdovskiy’s surreal 2016 black comedy, Zoology, which enjoyed a prize-winning festival run followed by international theatrical bookings. This Russian-British-Irish-French co-production is guilty of heavy-handed social critique in places, but generally satisfying overall, with a tense crime-thriller plot that could boost its commercial prospects. Further festival interest is assured based on its timely political subtext and Tverdovskiy’s track record.
Jumpman opens in the style of a dark fairy tale, with a car speeding toward a remote orphanage through nocturnal woodland. The orphanage is fitted with a wall hatch for depositing unwanted babies, a lurid plot detail which, shockingly, is rooted in reality. Fast-forward 16 years and the baby has grown up into gangly teenager Denis (Denis Vlasenko), still resident at the orphanage, where his resistance to pain has made him the semi-willing focus of sadistic torture games.
After living with abandonment issues all his life, Denis craves love and attention, which seem to finally be on offer when his loose-cannon mother, Oksana (Anna Slyu), returns to illegally spring him from the orphanage. Once her long-lost son is ensconced in her apartment, the scantily clad Oksana forms an uncomfortably flirtatious bond with him, one that borders on incestuous intimacy. There are lurid echoes here of vintage Jim Thompson, the much-filmed author of hard-boiled crime classics like The Grifters and The Getaway.
But Oksana’s underlying agenda is more mundanely sinister, cynically recruiting her emotionally needy son to work as a “jumpman” for her crooked circle of accomplices. Their scam hinges on Denis deliberately causing traffic accidents by throwing himself in front of moving cars, where he may suffer minor injury but feels no pain. Oksana’s corrupt police contacts then pressure the drivers to pay substantial blackmail money to avoid legal action. If they refuse, a whole team of unscrupulous ambulance drivers, medics, lawyers and judges then move into action to stage rigged court trials, where Denis serves as star witness. Rewards are juicy all around, with cash payments and career promotions. But, as with all film noir plots, treachery and venality eventually bring this rotten house of cards crashing down.
Tverdovskiy describes Jumpman as a “fable” specifically pitched at younger Russians who have only ever known Putin as their leader. Domestic audiences will more keenly appreciate the local nuances, but the screenplay feels too baldly allegorical at times, bluntly hammering home its harsh message: “There are those who jump, and those who make others jump.” The protagonists often feel more like giant chess pieces than flesh-and-blood players, while the spare dialogue leaves little breathing room for the cast to flesh out their characters. Tverdovskiy seems to be trying to make a deluxe thriller on a small-scale indie budget, which ultimately softens the impact of his sweeping state-of-the-nation satire.
That said, 20-year-old screen novice Vlasenko radiates embryonic star quality, all unschooled innocence and puppyish energy. The film also has a strong look, with cinematographer Denis Alarcon Ramirez conjuring up a glossy nocturama of glitzy late-night bars and rain-slicked city streets using both shaky handheld camera and more classically composed, deep-shadowed, noir-friendly shots. Jumpman is not a giant leap for Russian cinema, but it is a noteworthy addition to the growing canon of works responding to Putin’s regime with smart, sassy attitude.
Production companies: New People Film Company, Film and Music Entertainment, Tremora, Arizona Productions
Cast: Denis Vlasenko, Anna Slyu, Danil Steklov, Pavel Chinarev, Vilma Kutaviciute
Director, screenwriter: Ivan I. Tverdovskiy
Cinematographer: Denis Alarcon Ramirez
Editor: Ivan I. Tverdovskiy
Music: Kirill Richter
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Sales company: New Europe Film Sales