I can see why this elegant film won the Golden Globes award for best foreign language film, and a host of other awards for cinematography, director, actor, actress. Although the Russian Ministry of Culture partially funded it, the Minister says he doesn't like it. Hard to imagine any Putin-appointed official saying otherwise.
Set on the edge of the spectacularly beautiful Barents Sea, in and near a not-so-charming fishing village that features elegant government buildings and rundown Soviet style apartment buildings.
Kolya runs an auto repair shop next to his ancestral home on the edge of the sea. His teen son is typically rebellious and makes it clear that Kolya's wife - Lilya - is not his mother. The wife cleans fish at the fish factory, and seems somewhat distant from Kolya and the boy.
The well-fed and fabulously corrupt mayor - who rules with a stereotypical combination of Russian law and raw thuggery - has brought condemnation proceedings against Kolya's property so the city can build one more government palace. Kolya's old army buddy, now a slick Moscow lawyer, arrives just before the mayor-dominated court reads out the decree that will take away everything Kolya owns.
The lawyer understands both law and blackmail, and has arrived with a damning dossier of dirt on the mayor. The mayor also knows more than law, and rallies both city employees and loyal thugs to his cause.
The lawyer and Lilya are attracted to each other, and we are aware of an off-screen scene in which Kolya catches them in the act. Kolya threatens to kill them both. Still, everyone tries to keep themselves in their life roles, and the strain is palpable.
Kolya and his pals are determined to drink up all the vodka in Russia while using photos of former Soviet leaders for target practice. Orthodox priests dispense advice on truth, God's will, and the moral of the Book of Job. The courts dispense mechanical justice. The cops live on bribes. The mayor's trophy wife has the only fur coat in town. Whales play in the sea.
The mayor's hooligans beat up the lawyer, and he scoots back to Moscow. Lilya thinks about joining him, but stays with Kolya. She wants a baby with him, yet he is strangely silent.
Closing scenes: Lilya stands on a cliff, watching a whale. Lilya's body washes up on shore. The local prosecutor charges Kolya with murder. Lilya's best friend takes the son under her wing. A Swedish backhoe moves in on Kolya's house.
Russian with English subtitles.