Back in March, I saw a film called Stoker, mainly because Chan-wook Park directed it. What I found was a film so devoid of meaning, importance or interest that I decided not to bother reviewing it. Oddly, I feel the same about Alexey Balabanov’s The Stoker but this time I have decided not to be lazy and to go ahead and review it.
Mayor Ivan Skryabin (Mikhail Skryabin) served in Afghanistan in the 1980s but was discharged following a concussion. Through Misha (Aleksandr Mosin), a former colleague in the army, Ivan has got a job as a stoker, fuelling a huge furnace underneath a gangster hideout. Misha is a hit man, who sends Ivan a steady supply of corpses for disposal in the furnace. Ivan is aware of these crimes but blithely continues with the work, sleeping in a small bed next to the furnace and writing a novel set in his native Yakutia. Ivan and Misha both have daughters, Sasha and Masha (Aida Tumutova and Anna Korotaeva respectively), who share a fur trading business. Misha and his big, near-silent partner Bizon (Yuri Matveev) kill a series of people and Ivan disposes of the bodies until he can no longer turn a blind eye.
The film is almost relentlessly trivial, with writer-director Balabanov almost trying his best to avoid anything meaningful. Early in the film, Balabanov amuses himself by cutting suddenly from a quiet, often slow-paced scene to a graphic sex scene three times, intended to shock but instead feeling only embarrassingly juvenile. To keep things offbeat, the film is almost entirely scored with a folksy pop soundtrack, which make light of the frequent killings while the sober camerawork looks on with minimal participation. There are a lot of twists and turns, with unexpected killings and sudden blasts of violence but once one is accustomed to them they become fairly predictable and only succeed in distancing the audience further. Despite the use of hit men and violence, however, the film looks and feels like an art house film, moving slowly with an emphasis on dead time and steady, long takes. This stifles any potential comedy but also serves to highlight how silly the film is. The Stoker is then, as a result, a film that can neither be taken seriously nor as dopey, deranged fun. In this sense, it feels oddly unique but, equally, hopelessly derivative.
The Coen brothers (who feel like an influence here) have made a few films that try their best not to be taken seriously. At worst, these films would be cold-hearted, unlikeable but also quite dull. In fact, their recent films, ignoring Burn After Reading, suggest that they have turned away from unrewarding idiosyncrasies such as The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers and the Ethan Coen-scripted The Naked Man – The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou get away with it because they are funny. The Stoker, however, is proudly out-of-step and resolutely pointless.
Or is it? There is a hint of a meaning in the subject of Ivan’s novel about a Russian exile, Kostya, who beats a Yakut man and then rapes his wife, both second-class citizens under Tsarist Russia. Ivan reads from his novel several times and the film ends with a short adaptation of this story, recalling oddly enough the prologue to A Serious Man, further suggesting its significance. Ivan clearly sees himself and his daughter is like the Yakut couple in the story, tolerated by the Russians until they cease being useful. There is then a parallel that can be drawn with the also frequently mentioned war in Afghanistan, which Ivan and Misha took part in, though in significantly different ways – Ivan in the thick of the action and Misha far away with a sniper rifle. The ease with which the former soldiers have turned into gangsters also seems telling, as if there is a suggestion that there is little difference between violence during wartime and criminal violence. However, as much meaning as there may or may not be in the film becomes rather irrelevant since everything else in the film is so adamantly disposable.