At several junctures in this film we are shown an electric streetcar with no sides, a hollow prism offering a glance at the skyline and sunsets of Russia's most beautiful city. That our streetcar is both transparent and unadulterated may be obvious; but it also masks desires. We are in what is called New Russia, where many have little, few have plenty, and a certain stratum has decided to take what they can before Death casts its shroud. And where does Death lurk? At almost every corner, in almost every alley, but not, most importantly, in every human soul.
Our first scene is like no other: a voluptuous blonde stands against a wall with her black dress peeling off her very white skin. Above her hovers a camera and we understand that what we are watching is counterfeit, synthetic, abstract, someone's concept of what reality should but never could resemble. We then espy a young man who seems to float into the picture asking a crew member what song is playing in the background. He is immediately spotted and berated by the head of security, a bored director contemplates momentarily whether he could use the impending brawl in his film, and as we fade to black our security chief is bounding bloody-minded through the crowd.
The next vignette has our fellow seated in the local police station. He identifies himself as Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), twenty-two years of age, appropriately residing at the itinerant address of 22 Station Street, and a recent discharge from the Russian army. His wounds are visible but are nothing compared to what he inflicted on his assailant. Danila is offered a job which he politely refuses with a smirk, and as he leaves the police chief comments to a colleague and cold window pane that he was once his father's classmate. The same father who died at forty in a prison after repeated burglary convictions. Danila makes his way home to his mother, who laments in that strange way mothers have of trying to motivate their children that Danila "will croak in prison like [his] good-for-nothing father." Her "only hope" is apparently "little Viktor in Petersburg." This Viktor is hardly little. At least ten years older than his brother, he replaced Danila's father, who died when the boy was only seven, and what he has done with his life in the Venice of the North has not been revealed to anyone at this point; in fact, not even the film's title has been mentioned. The mother insists that Danila peruse yet again the photo album she keeps of her beloved Viktor, shown aging into a bald, menacing figure, although Danila has no interest. Yet when his mother recommends a fraternal reunion in Petersburg, he is surprisingly receptive. Perhaps because he knows what his brother actually does for a living – and at this point we get our title and an introduction to a very different world.
We then find Viktor (Viktor Sukharukov), easily identifiable from the photographs, deep in one of those hard-boiled dialogues that involve money, death, or often both. His interlocutor (Sergei Murzin) is an odd, round-headed gentleman (nicknamed "Roundhead" throughout the film) who likes to talk in rhymes and has made his offer at fifteen thousand dollars and one week's preparation "to get a Chechen." Viktor brazenly dismisses this sum and wants twenty, half up front, and twice the time to track his quarry, to which the Roundhead readily agrees, although if we know anything about men of his stamp, quick assent normally indicates ulterior motives – in this case, an added assignment for his two flunkies. At another location in the same magical city, Danila detrains. He walks past one of Petersburg's most famous monuments and pauses, continues his walk around the city freezing, smoking and, most of all, observing. Why would an ostensibly impecunious young man not go directly to his brother's warm apartment? Because Danila has a plan that may or may not include his brother, but which definitely renders his repeated claims to only having served "in headquarters" more than a little dubious.
This amazing survey is accomplished in about ten minutes of laconic screen time. The vignettes are always curt, almost like the pictures in the album Danila has been force-fed time and again, and perhaps for that reason is he the only one who anticipates the moves of others. He befriends an impoverished German (Yuri Kuznestov) whose penury has not diminished his philosophy, a junkie called Kat, and Sveta, a married thirtysomething woman who happens to be the driver of the aforementioned sideless streetcar. It is among these three characters as well as the morally vapid Viktor that Danila ricochets, and in time we detect the outline of his schemes. Blood is spilled, of course, but literally just off-screen – behind a wall or door, under a bed, from a distance – and Danila makes enough racist comments to disrupt an open-minded person's idea of justice. We are not dealing with a good human being but a criminal with a moral code; unusual surely, though no reason to cheer. Around him Danila sees the more conventional forms of revolution – drugs, long hair, loud music – but prefers his conservative do and this band on his omnipresent discman (which comes in handy in a later scene), and doesn't have any real taste for drugs, alcohol, or the deadening throb of disco bars. As a revolutionary he is most unconventional, which easily makes him the most radical figure in what would otherwise have become a straightforward tale.
What distinguishes Brother from similar films is the deceptive innocuousness of its fairy tale surroundings and its protagonist, who despite his deep voice and playboy stare does some very adult things in a childish way. There is a hint of something greater at play than man versus man: it devolves into an entire city pockmarked by violent crime against one soul at once above and below the law. A familiar story, but told with such gusto and attention to detail (note how Sveta looks at Danila as he watches a pirated copy of a concert) that we cannot help but wonder whether the German is right when he says of Petersburg, "the city is a horrific force," and "the strong come here and become weak because the city swallows up our strength." And only once do we hear Danila justify his hell-bent tactics, to the German naturally, who can judge him without fear of retaliation. Not that retaliation could really motivate a clerk from headquarters.