Navalny's True Crime Will Make Your Blood Run Cold in the Year's Scariest Scene

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<i>Navalny</i>'s True Crime Will Make Your Blood Run Cold in the Year's Scariest Scene

Documenting the attempted murder of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by agents working for President Vladimir Putin, Daniel Roher’s Navalny is serious-minded and political true crime. It’s not a flashy binge-watch with a silly name like The Tinder Swindler. It’s not about delusional rich people showing us all that capitalism doesn’t WeWork. It’s not for serial killer or cult obsessives, nor for those getting high off the exploitation of victims. In a streamer-saturated subgenre most notably defined by subpar filmmaking, barrel-scraping supply overload and suspect ethics, Navalny stands out. It’s compelling, shocking, lucid—and it turns a single phone call into the scariest scene of the year.

Yes, just a phone call. Nobody’s on the other end asking if you like scary movies, or telling you that you’ll die in seven days. It’s far worse than that. The documentary’s observation of Navalny’s month-long hospitalization and post-poisoning physical therapy is wrenching. Its footage of Russian civilians being indiscriminately carted off, arms twisted by riot police, is harrowing. Its inhuman Q&A with Putin is unnerving. But the complex levels of fear unearthed by its climactic call are unmatched.

The seven-minute scene comes at the end of a longer section where Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev, Anti-Corruption Foundation journalist Maria Pevchikh and Navalny himself ring up his would-be assassins. Grozev has identified the Federal Security Service agents—acquiring their phone numbers from data scrapers—and the team is about to go live with their investigative report, announcing that Navalny was poisoned in August 2020 by government wetworkers using Putin’s signature substance, Novichok. Since they’re about to put these agents on blast, they might as well put those phone numbers to use while they still have the element of surprise. Because Navalny calls under the guise of a government bureaucrat, he keeps joking that they’re “prank” calls—but one will make your blood run cold.

Cut down from a full 23-minute conversation, the sequence listens in as chemist and would-be killer Konstantin Kudryavtsev companionably explains to Navalny that he’s not sure what went wrong in the Navalny murder. It went off without a hitch, he says, exactly like they’d rehearsed it.

“But in our profession, as you know,” he unknowingly tells the man he poisoned, “there are lots of unknowns and nuances.”

Navalny, only alive because of those “unknowns and nuances,” assures Kudryavtsev that he understands.

The last in a series of calls—none of which lead to much but dial tones—the chilling Kudryavtsev sequence stays locked onto Navalny and his team’s faces as they begin to grasp the idiotic evil that almost pulled this murder off. They’ve got him, and it’s awful. Grozev keeps slapping his forehead and hiding his face in his hands; Pevchikh covers her gaping mouth. Navalny’s bewildered grin seems stuck buffering, frozen as his mind and body process the confession. Kudryavtsev keeps blathering on, a bad guy from the Austin Powers school of spilling schemes. Navalny follows suit and keeps pushing him, energized by the World’s Chattiest Hitman.

Kudryavtsev discusses the plan down to the most intimate detail: The nerve agent Novichok was placed in the crotch of Navalny’s underwear, which the killers obtained from his laundry service. Even the color is specified. Nearly put in the dirt by blue boxers and some of the dumbest people in Putin’s employ. What a way to go. Despite the excruciating tension and grisly implications, everyone’s smiling, broken by the situation’s absurdity. Finally, mercifully, they wrap things up.

“Poor guy. They will kill him,” Navalny laughs after hanging up. “They will definitely kill him.”

As that reality sets in and the adrenaline fades, things quickly sober up. The trio briefly considers getting Kudryavtsev out of Russia, because even inept murderers deserve more than an extrajudicial execution, but their report is breaking in just a few hours. The news cycle is in motion. There’s no time.

“He’ll be in a ditch by tomorrow,” says Pevchikh.

The camera keeps rolling as nervousness turns to mockery, which gives way to empathy, practicality and the grim acceptance of signing a man’s death certificate (not too long after he tried to sign yours). It all takes less than 30 seconds.

The scene’s unrelenting march starts and ends with death. It watches one of the modern world’s only remaining symbols of justice, investigative journalists, realize that they’re going to get someone shot in the head. It quietly normalizes the organizational practice of assassination. Its filmmaking, consummately modern in its documentary style, is colored by the content it unearths. The lack of cutaways would be one thing, but the claustrophobic enclosure of their dark makeshift conference room—haunted by the disembodied voice of a killer—is straight horror. Its tonal sine wave, making your heart rate spike and bottom out in an oscillating pattern, even corrupts the gallows humor.

And it is funny. Kudryavtsev even calls out how unprofessional what he’s doing is and then keeps doing it. But somehow, that allows it to crawl even deeper under your skin. Like our own, the Russian government has a reputation for ineffectiveness, waste and foolishness. Navalny amusingly sums it up with the term “Moscow4.” It’s hilarious that a high-ranking Russian intelligence officer changed his hacked password from “Moscow1” to “Moscow2,” bumping the digit with each successful breach until “Moscow4,” but knowing you almost got snuffed out by brazen incompetents is somehow more frightening than the alternative.

Maybe that’s because it’s so relatable. If there actually were meticulous operatives secretly running the show with a smooth shadowy hand, we could at least surrender to that higher power. But there aren’t. The world is more QAnon than Illuminati, more Watergate than Parallax View. We saw it every day when Donald Trump was president (especially on days when America’s Least Favorite Uncles proudly stormed the Capitol), and we continue to see it as his administration’s simpleminded cover-ups are exposed. Our trust in the government, or any institution, has been entirely extinguished; Hanlon’s razor, “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” has been replaced with “you know what, why not both?” Knowing that the world and—in the most literal sense for Navalny—your own life is at the mercy of people who couldn’t find their own khuy with both hands is terrifying because it’s so believable. I’m not afraid of Ghostface, I’m afraid of Kyle Rittenhouse. I’m afraid of the literal Trump clown waving a pistol in a Dairy Queen.

Roher’s Navalny grounds the farce throughout, making it even more bone-chilling. Navalny busts the filmmaker’s balls for making a movie that could’ve easily become an awards-baiting eulogy. When his teen daughter refers to having “the talk” with her dad, she’s not talking about sex, but about his all-but-inevitable assassination. The silencing specter of death is omnipresent, but nothing beats an attempted murderer accidentally confessing his crime to his victim.

Kudryavtsev hasn’t been seen or heard from since that call. Navalny, arrested at the documentary’s finale, is still in a maximum security Russian prison. He faces charges of “extremism,” on top of an ever-increasing prison sentence for a contempt and embezzlement conviction. “This sham trial, attended by prison guards rather than the media, breaks international human rights law and clearly deprives Navalny of his right to a fair trial,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. We all know it, but that knowledge won’t free him. Navalny, impotent and furious, is scary because its fallible fascism is tangible, but far scarier because those fascists know they don’t need to be perfect.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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