How I Ended This Summer (15)

A minimalist Russian thriller annoys and amazes Ryan Gilbey.

The law of Chekhov's gun dictates that the ­significance of an apparently inconsequential prop or detail shown in the first act must be ­disclosed in the third. It need not be a gun - a doughnut or a spinning jenny will do just as well. But narrative cinema being the aggressive medium that it is (look at the vocabulary: action, cut, shoot), Chekhov's gun is interpreted literally more often than not. That contract is honoured by How I Ended This Summer. Far from restricting itself to one paltry weapon, this Russian film serves up a wealth of items to be returned to later (Chekhov's Geiger counter, Chekhov's fish, Chekhov's mysterious abandoned cottage in the distance). Trying to keep track of them all is like playing the conveyor-belt round of The Generation Game.

How I Ended This Summer is both fascinating and infuriating, often simultaneously, but it does at least pass the hot beverage test - by which I mean the film is so gripping that a hot beverage went cold at my side as I watched. If you were pitching the scenario pithily to a Hollywood studio executive, you would call it "Pinter on ice", presumably before security escorted you briskly from the building.

The cast comprises two men holed up at a meteorological research outpost in the Russian Arctic. Walk-on parts go to the local wildlife. The older man, the surly, stubble-headed Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), is casually contemptuous of his pretty-boy colleague, Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin). We can assume from the ease with which they carry out their tasks (reporting radioactivity readings from the surrounding area to an unseen headquarters) that they have been working together for some months. They're not unlike a father and son. Pavel is a video-game buff who listens to his MP3 player, or goofs around outside, leaping from one rusty barrel to another. Sergei has to instil in him the importance of sticking to their timetable, and to remind him: "This is not a playground."

A fleeting moment of sexualised menace comes when the naked Sergei drags Pavel into their tiny sauna and jokes about having his way with him, but the most profound threat arises from secrecy. It's no coincidence that Sergei twice has cause to say to Pavel: "No need to tell anyone."

Dialogue is sparse. When it does come, it has a macabre tinge to it. Sergei begins one conversation with the words: "Talking about graves . . ." He lends Pavel a chunky alarm clock that he promises could wake the dead. There is talk of a predecessor who was killed by a bear, and repeated warnings not to venture too far from the station. Occasionally, Pavel shoots his grizzled companion a wary look that seems to say: I'll take my chances with the bear.

The convention in early Pinter (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker) is for a third party to ­disrupt the precarious dynamic between two characters. Alexei Popogrebsky, who wrote and directed How I Ended This Summer, takes his cue more explicitly from The Dumb Waiter by making the disruption first external, then internalised. While Sergei absconds for a few days of fishing, something terrible happens. Pavel needs to tell Sergei urgently, but when he returns, laden with trout, the right moment never quite presents itself. Watching the anxiety twisting Pavel's formerly untroubled face, we feel the urge to scream at the screen: "Tell him! Tell him!" Then Popogrebsky will cut to Sergei scowling, or a close-up of him gutting a blankly smiling trout, and we amend our earlier advice: "Not yet, not yet."

The film is long for a minimalist thriller (more than two hours) and the suspense can't hold indefinitely. Eventually, Pavel's dithering becomes plain irritating, just as the stubborn withholding of information ate into the plausibility of another modern Russian picture, Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Banishment. Then again, what Popogrebsky sacrifices in tension he makes up for in grandeur. The worse the situation gets, the deeper Pavel Kostomarov's cinematography reaches to reflect the characters' inner desolation. Grey mountains slice diagonally across the screen, and a ghostly fog descends to en-gulf Pavel when he wanders off into the void. He plays shoot-'em-up video games and wears combat fatigues, but he flounders in the no-man's land of repressed masculine emotion and toxic secrecy. That sounds terrible, I know. But it looks spectacular.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special