We live in a time when it's easy -- too easy -- to dismiss thinking about terrorists and their motives because they're not ''like us." In that sense, ''The Rider Named Death," set among a small band of anarchists in 1906 Moscow, is welcome. If only the movie did more with it.
Directed by Russian filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov, ''Rider" is based on Boris Savinkov's 1909 autobiographical novel ''The Pale Horse," and Georges (Andrei Panin), its cool, cruel antihero, is apparently modeled closely on the author. Savinkov was part of the scattered anti-czarist revolutionary forces coalescing in pre-World War I Russia; he threw bombs at ministers and noblemen, lived to fight against the Bolsheviks in 1917, and ''jumped" from a window to his death during a 1925 interrogation.
Shakhnazarov's film effortlessly captures the times and the author's conflicted yet unyielding attitude, yet it never draws any conclusions -- the film remains under glass. It's watchable, nevertheless, and in many ways a triumph of production design. The re-creation of 1906 Moscow is uncanny, from the bustling streets and crowded nightclubs to the quiet apartments where revolutionaries plot their attacks.
They're a varied crew with strands of Dostoyevskian DNA: Vanya (Artyom Semakin) is a mousy religious intellectual in despair over God's disappearance from the world, while Fyodor (Rostislav Bershauer) is a scruffy, impatient working-class nihilist. Henreich (Aleksey Kazakov) is a bourgeois student wavering in his commitment. Erna (Kseniya Rappoport) is the demolitions expert; she smuggles dynamite over the border, assembles the bombs, and pines hopelessly for Georges, her on-again off-again lover.
Georges doesn't love anything but death, and in Panin's sleekly charismatic performance -- the actor resembles a harder Jon Voigt -- the useless allure of violence is allowed to simmer and dispel. He supposedly carries a torch for Elena (Anastasia Makeeva), a fragile upper-class beauty married to a military man, but even she understands who Georges' real mistress is.
Does Georges obsess over assassinating Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich (Vasiliy Zotov, wearing an unfortunate fake beard) because he looks like Elena's husband, or does he hate the husband for his resemblance to the duke? The tension is never resolved, and while ''The Rider Named Death" looks as though it might dig deeper into the psychology of terrorism, it ultimately stalls out in empty metaphor. Quotations from the Book of Revelation are all well and good, but they seem oddly beside the point.
The point -- the movie's dramatic climax -- comes when the band finally sets out to bomb the Grand Duke's carriage and sees that it carries his wife and children as well. Each of the film's finely etched characters reacts differently and according to his principles (or lack thereof) and thus gives the lie to the line of dialogue ''Terrorism is the triumph of the individual over the state." It's a powerful scene, but ''The Rider Named Death" still has 30 minutes to go and nothing to do with them but sigh in defeat.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.