The story of the hunt for a serial killer, Daniel Espinosa’s film adaptation of Child 44 is crammed with metaphors of heaven and hell.
What happens in Child 44?
After WWII, soldier and soviet hero Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) joins the military police. Hunting traitors is important work in Stalin’s Russia – and Demidov’s team is brutally effective at it. But then Demidov’s wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) falls under suspicion.
Demidov is exiled from Moscow and demoted to a local police force. There, he’s drawn to a series of deaths involving young boys. As hidden forces conspire to stop the investigation, Demidov must race to stop a serial killer before yet another child is murdered.
No murder in paradise
There was no place for criticism in Stalin’s Russia. Criticism of the state was considered too close to disloyalty, betrayal and criminality.
Pointing out flaws (like the existence of murder) could draw attention to other imperfections the state would prefer to keep hidden. And, in the interest of retaining power and privilege, many agents of the state would prefer to let children die unseen.
This is what Demidov means when he warns that “there can be no murder in paradise” after Alexei’s son dies. And this is why they need to keep their mouths shut – and their suspicions to themselves.
This is easier said than done. The state itself sanctions the use of murder in certain circumstances – death by firing squad, for instance. Then there’s the way Vasili kills an innocent couple simply because he can.
Acknowledging murder is risky, because it could draw attention to the state’s corruption and hypocrisy. Better to believe that things are perfect – and that evil doesn’t exist.
But is it paradise at all?
Demidov’s life in Moscow seems perfect. He has an impressive apartment and enjoys grandiose dinners with other officers. But the life he thinks he has is built on lies – and murder brings the illusion crashing down.
Demidov speaks out when Vasili kills an innocent couple. This sets Vasili up as an agent of Demidov’s destruction, and leads to Raisa’s confession.
Demidov thinks it’s cute that his wife gave him a false name when they first met – yet this hides a much bigger deception. Raisa doesn’t love Demidov. She married him because – like not acknowledging murder – it seemed the safer option.
More significantly, the child murders disrupt the state’s illusion of paradise. And once Demidov becomes aware this, and of the injustice all around him, he finds himself in hell.
What does hell look like?
The difference between heaven and hell is a subtle one. The film’s colour palette is dark and muddy. There are lots of shadows and dimly lit scenes (similar to Se7en, another film about serial murder).
Paradise (Moscow) has neat offices, private rooms and candlelit dinners. Hell (Volsk) has poverty, dirt and daily abuse. Paradise is about denial. Hell has murder.
Paradise has friendships and alliances (Demidov and Alexei, Raisa and Sukov). There are no friendships in hell: Vasili kills Alexei, Sukov is a double agent, and Raisa doesn’t love Demidov.
Moreover, the illusion of paradise only exists for those with power. Demidov, a high-ranking security officer, lives a seemingly perfect existence. Once he’s cast out of Moscow (like a fallen angel), he experiences the hellish existence of those without power, wealth or influence.
For all its splendour, paradise is an unfeeling place. Demidov battles to lock away his emotions so he can carry on doing the state’s work. In hell, he starts to face up to the pain within and all around him. Ultimately, this leads to resolution and escape.
What does ‘Child 44’ mean?
Once the characters admit murder might be possible, it introduces other consequences.
Firstly, it leads to more murder. More dead children turn up – though of course they’ve always been there, just either unseen or hidden away. This is what the film’s title references: Child 44 is Alexei’s son, Jora. Before him there are 43 other, invisible murdered children.
Both Vasili and Demidov are also drawn into further killings. While Demidov kills to stay alive, Vasili kills out of cruelty. This fits with the idea of the two men being mirror opposites of each other (see also The Departed).
Vasili wants to be Demidov, partly out of jealousy, partly as means of cancelling out his own cowardice. Achieving this means destroying Demidov’s life, luring Raisa away, and finally killing him.
The other consequence is to highlight an impossible dichotomy. If there can be no murder in paradise, does that mean there’s no murder, or no paradise? For Demidov, the question shatters his earlier delusions – and leads to a new kind of perfection.
In a literal sense, hell is paradise lost. But the paradise that Demidov loses – in Moscow – isn’t real. When he falls into hell, he doesn’t actually fall far. It’s more that his eyes are opened to the hell that’s always been around him.
Raisa may already be wise to this when she tells him it’s merely their turn to lose status. She recognises the frailty of their lives, built as they are on lies and the lottery of social status. And perhaps it’s a nod to a deserved punishment, because each of them is a flawed and guilty character.
In any case, being exiled is a cathartic journey that leads to a truer and more tangible kind of paradise.
The film ends with Demidov and Raisa forming true feelings for each other. They go on to create a real family, adopting the children orphaned by Vasili. This is a very natural resolution (because almost all films are about family and love).
It also closes the loop of the film’s beginning, when Demidov is himself shown to be an orphan. By striving to be good and show mercy (despite the ease of being vengeful or murderous) Demidov is rewarded with kindness and true fortune.
It’s a message common in much religious dogma. And, like those journeys of faith, battling the trials of hell – and human nature – gives rise to true paradise, and new life.
Child 44 (2015), directed by Daniel Espinosa
What to read or watch next
- Locke (Tom Hardy, consequences)
- Prometheus (Noomi Rapace)
- Se7en (serial killers, hell)
- The Hunt for Red October, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Russia – as depicted by Hollywood)
- Event Horizon (hell)
- The Devil’s Advocate (complicity, consequences)
Picture credit: Pavel Neznanov