The corrupt heart of contemporary Russia is mercilessly exposed in Jumpman, a savage look at a society that has lost its way. Telling the story of a boy who uses his rare ability to feel no pain to jump in front of cars in order to blackmail their owners, Ivan I. Tverdovsky has created a savage exposé of a world in which nothing matters other than the pursuit of capital.
It starts with Denis (Denis Vlasenko) being dumped at an orphanage. As he grows older, he gets diagnosed with congenital analgesia, which means that he doesn’t feel pain in the same way other people do. This ability to withstand intense physical pressure makes him a favourite with the fellow boys, who tie him up with a hose and pull it on from either side to see how long he can last. Then one day, his mother (Anna Slyu) returns to the orphanage and takes him back to Moscow. Once there, they devise their dastardly money-making scheme.
Moscow really is a city of cars. Due to the sheer noise pollution, even trying to have a conversation while walking down the street is a near impossible task. There’s just so many of them! They are also a clear indicator of how people in the city manipulate the system. For example, it’s not uncommon to see officials put police lights on top of their car just so they can get through traffic quicker. Here, Jumpman has picked its topic perfectly, using these machines as a way of symbolising society’s moral rot.
The con works because everyone is in on it. Denis’s scheme has been devised by a cop (Danil Sterklov) who blatantly uses his car mic to tell him what to do. His very brazenness is telling. They also have a woman in a hospital to falsify reports, such as writing that the defendant was drunk despite the fact he never even stepped foot in the ward. The defendants are put in a glass box, surrounded by armed guards, and look like fish in an aquarium. They can complain all they want, but nothing will be done. The defense lawyer is also in on the con, and raises no objections. Shot in long, judgemental takes, this stick-up job is a really brilliant sequence.
Yet, the majesty of this scene is then somewhat spoiled by the camera panning above the judge’s head onto the Russian Coat of Arms. With the implication of this scene obvious for everyone to interpret, this choice to end it on the national crest feels like overkill. A later scene celebrating the promotion of a corrupt judge is even further overdone when the characters dance underneath a neon Russian flag. But perhaps it should be seen in the context of a superhero movie, in which these gestures are common (see: Spider-Man 3).
Without the ability to feel pain like others do, Denis is a kind of superhero. Yet unlike a traditional Marvel or DC character, he uses his powers for evil instead of good. This inability to feel physical pain is then extended into a moral one. You can only work in a system like this if you simply dissociate yourself from how these actions impact others. You cannot be allowed to feel if you want to succeed. Much like in Loznitsa’s Donbass, which premiered at Cannes, there is a complete break from reality here. It shows that if everyone is in on the game, then the truth can be whatever you want it to be and there is no need to be sad about it (none of this is really fantasy either – Russia is known for its kangaroo courts, such as the one that put Kirill Serebbnikov under house arrest).
This technique and fresh talking ground points a new way forward for the superhero movie, which, although aping more genres than ever, has started to allow a sense of sameness to creep in, especially by the way they end. The definition of a superhero movie can be very broad, and should be taken on by deeply personal, auteurist visions. By focusing on character first, and narrative second, Jumpman may not be a conventional superhero movie, but its definitely an example of how unorthodox approaches could reinvigorate the genre.
The soundtrack is fresh, featuring contemporary Russian pop songs such as “Free Love” by ЛУНА. These musical choices lend the movie a strong immediacy, telegraphing to the viewer that these events are happening right now. Denis, born in 2001, is of the new generation; it’s up to him whether or not to conform or resist the choices of his elders. His conflict with his mother is a key driving factor in the film and leads to some of the most heartbreaking scenes. Again shot in long takes, it’s clear how much Russian cinema is indebted to theatrical tradition, the lack of coverage allowing these actors to really express themselves.
Near the end of the film, Denis finally has a conversation with one of the victims, who explains to him the larger conspiracy behind what he is doing. As he wisely puts it, society is divided into those that jump and those who make others jump, and despite Denis’s special powers, there are many more like him who are willing to abandon their principles in order to get ahead. Coming at a time when Russia seems to be stuck in a moment of permanent stasis (the excellent World Cup permitting) Jumpman is a clear statement that change is well overdue.