Gorky Park is a terrific exercise in specificity, painting an early eighties Soviet Union made up of ice, steamy bathhouses, a monopolized fur trade, a waning but still brutal KGB, a woman who wants to escape Russia, and a man who knows he never can. Michael Apted makes the most of some remarkably uncanny and grotesque images–between this film and some of the scenes in The Americans (breaking down a body to fit in a suitcase, intimate tooth extraction) it feels like there’s a mini-genre of Soviet Gothic where everything is at once twisted and stark. Here, we have a scene where a man watches in helpless horror as a plaster reconstruction of his brother’s head is destroyed; we have confrontations surrounded by animal cages, where Apted almost conveys their smell.
The film–adapted from the Martin Cruz Smith novel of the same name–centers on Arkady Renko (William Hurt), a militsiya officer who, much to his displeasure, is tasked with handling a case involving three bodies found in Gorky Park–their faces flayed, their fingertips removed, and their teeth mostly destroyed. It reeks of KGB involvement, and Renko, who’s already incurred enough of their enmity to last a lifetime, just wants to pass the case on to the people he’s sure are responsible for it. But the KGB strangely refuse, leaving Renko to solve three murders that no one might actually want solved. He carries on despite everything–if he can’t unload the responsibility, it’s his, and he regards that as an inflexible obligation. Hurt’s performance is notably good, coiled and watchful, with an intensity always burning beneath Renko’s stillness. (After seeing how well he plays dumb in Broadcast News and Body Heat, his sense of relentless intelligence here is especially remarkable.)
But the real star here might be the dialogue, which is often razor sharp, spoken by characters who have long since gotten used to their world. “KGB have better cars, you know,” Irina (Joanna Pacula) says when Renko offers her a ride. “Ah, but they don’t always take you where you want to go, do they?” Renko replies. At another point, Renko matter-of-factly addresses whether or not Irina might want to sleep with a director who’s promised to get her a new pair of boots: “Well, the winter’s almost over.”
Renko’s style and intelligence comes up against an uncompromising foe in Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin), a rich American furrier played with something of the same steely, implacable charisma of John Huston’s Noah Cross.
“I always wanted a sable hat,” Renko says to him, but when Osborne offers to get him one–something befitting a man of his position–he demurs, shifting the real topic of conversation: “We Russians know how to wait for things. I’m very patient. I watch and I think and I wait. It is my only virtue.”
“But why wait? I’m always happy to accommodate particular Soviet friends… [Waiting and pouncing] is no way to catch a sable. They’re far too cunning and far too fast. While you wait and you think and you watch… your prey is gone.”
Renko stays calm. “Oh, I don’t think so.”
“Good, good. Meanwhile I have a hat and you don’t.”
Gorky Park is available on Amazon Prime and Hulu.