As directed by neophyte Anton Bormatov, the mob thriller Alien Girl packs one hell of a punch. Set in 1993 Ukraine, it's the fact-based tale of several Russian thugs, including Wise, Shorty, Beef, and Kid, who get in way over their heads during an assignment for Rasp (Evgeny Mundun), a psychopathic, crack-smoking criminal overlord in the former Soviet Union. In the film's brutal prologue, one of Rasp's gangs performs a hit on several of its rivals by shooting up a van, but botches the assignment -- a single intended victim named Babai survives the massacre, and teeters on the cusp of fingering the aggressors to Russian authorities. In response, Rasp orders Kid, Shorty, and co. to "discourage" Babai from confessing by heading for the Czech Republic and taking as a hostage his sister -- an elusive young woman known as "Alien."
For its first 40 minutes, Alien Girl cruises along largely on the strength of its inspired presentation. Bormatov's background may lie in directing music videos, but the kind of hyperkinetic stylization that this fact suggests couldn't possibly be further away from his approach to his first feature. Especially as Kid and his gang head into the seedy Czechoslovakian underground, the movie takes on an eerie realism, rife with so many non-clichéd sordid details that we can't help but feel that we're bearing witness to covert scandals in some illicit mondo record of the Czech black market -- from a violent bedroom interrogation of a prostitute (conducted with the aggressors in the nude) that seems headed straight for gang rape to a repulsive, hirsute Czech pimp dressed in a bathrobe whose glassed-over eyes and slurred speech suggest that he has important parts on order. If the film remained on this level, it would qualify as an unusually well-observed thriller about Eastern European crime; what lifts it to another plane entirely is the fact that Bormatov weaves in such acute and revelatory psychological insights, involving both his main characters and peripheral ones. We realize we're in the hands of a master, for example, when he has the central gang terrorizing a pimp -- and then cuts to an overjoyed reaction from a prostitute, quietly suggesting that the hood has relentlessly victimized her for months or years.
As the picture moves into subsequent acts, with the lowlifes transporting Alien back to Russia, it both builds on this sort of inspired behavioral deduction, and weaves in a copious amount of seductive ambiguity regarding the main character. We can be certain that Alien is playing sophisticated, Mametian mind games with her captors. What isn't so clear -- when she has sex with one of them, then tries to convince him to turn his gun on his partners and abscond with her to the City of Lights (to "start normal lives," a desire that she may indeed possess) -- is the degree of sincerity inherent in her Parisian plans. It would be easy to write her off as a Machiavellian schemer, intent on setting her co-conspirator up for a violent fall; surprisingly, it's also not so difficult to empathize with her and believe that she's telling the truth. That enigmatic quality helps build the level of intoxication in the picture to a dizzying high; we're riveted, and can't tear our eyes from the screen. One character references Ridley Scott's Alien creature as the source of the young woman's nickname, but to take this at face value and believe wholeheartedly that she's a diabolical, acid-spurting monster is just as naïve as our fully trusting her. And one can't help but deduce that the title also refers to her alien nature, her absolute inscrutability in the eyes of the audience -- an inscrutability that Bormatov does resolve in the last 20 minutes.
For most of Alien Girl's running time, the narrative itself feels just about perfect, a jigsaw puzzle fit snugly together. Not a second feels wasted, superfluous, or dull. If this thriller falls short of perfection, it does so only in a few scant details leading up to and inherent in the epilogue -- the movie's sudden leap forward from 1993 to 1998 feels too daunting and jarring, and leaves a couple of pivotal questions unresolved. Bormatov also initially fails to clarify the fact that one character has actually survived a violent attack when he appears long dead to us. The final credit sequence -- stylized shots of all the main characters lying dead on stone slabs in the morgue, when not all of them have been killed in the story itself -- also muddies up the details. However, these lapses are minor; what counts is that Bormatov, working from a labyrinthine historical chronicle, seamlessly integrates fascinating characters into a narrative that reworks conventions of organized crime films and keeps the audience hooked. As such, the movie is a masterful debut.