The Stoker

The Stoker


Reviewed by: Michael Pattison

No less than three plot strands are set up in the cross-cutting if conventional enough opening sequence of The Stoker (Kochegar, aka A Stoker), which is backed by scene-setting music by folksy guitar ensemble Didyulya and which culminates in the cremation of a corpse. Thereafter, deadpan hilarity continues while things get emotionally messy: everyone’s connected to everyone else and vengeful comeuppances are to be had.

The Stoker (or simply “Stoker”, played by Mikhail Skryabin) stokes the ovens of the boiler house in which he has worked as a solitary figure for years; he is also a Yakut, a Major and a Hero of The Soviet Union, whose pal “Sergeant” (Alexander Mosin), a hitman, pays him regular visits while right-hand man Vasya (Yuri Matveyev) lifts their latest victim into the ovens. The Stoker asks no questions, but as he types away a pulp novel that may or may not be based on his own life, and advises about good men and bad men to the two young girls who visit him regularly to “look at the fire”, it becomes apparent that his morals are, overall, in the right place.

Singular writer-director Alexey Balabanov does things his own way, presenting his typically black comedy as an over-busy throwaway farce soundtracked by non- diegetic music to such an incessant degree that you wonder if he knows what he’s doing. There’s also a virtue made of walking: characters come and characters go in longer-than-average shots of them navigating an icy mid-1990s St. Petersburg, including near-slips and over-enthusiastic extras botching their choreography. Dramatic padding (or whatever else is afoot) has never been so beautifully framed, however, and if one’s willing to go along for the ride, The Stoker is a fiercely likeable film. Effortless tonal shifts abound and there is outrageous comedy to be had merely in someone’s sartorial choices.

Is there a method to Balabanov’s madness? Damn straight: those walking shots draw parallels between characters of differing social statuses, worldviews are suggested merely by the way someone carries themselves through the frame, the everyday world is one of negotiation and interrelation – can’t we all just get along? Petty backstabbers fight for scraps and wangle their way to the top; deceit has its reward. Ivan’s daughter Masha (Anna Korotayeva) and The Stoker’s daughter Sasha (Aida Tumutova) represent different levels of ruin: one is a self-made employer of labour, the other is a bottom-rung spoilt child who thinks nothing of putting a request in to daddy to have someone violently offed.

These are the children of Stalin and Coca-Cola, after all, but two young girls who just want to hear stories and sit watching the flames in The Stoker’s oven show signs of a more hopeful future. To ensure the fulfilment of such a future, however, perhaps we ought to stop stoking the flames of post-Stalinist corruption – and even put a violently devastating end to them...

By a happy (Balabanovian?) coincidence, The Stoker screened in March as part of Bradford International Film Festival’s small retrospective of the director’s work, which despite massive domestic success with Brother in 1997 and its sequel in 2000, has been undeservedly neglected when it comes to UK theatrical distribution. Shortly after BIFF’s programme was launched, however, news came that Edinburgh-based distribution label Filmhouse had picked up The Stoker for a “key cities” release. A three-year-old film with no star credits doesn’t appear to be the most profitable of titles with which to enter the distribution market; but with the UK exhibition circuit in dire need of renewal (and indeed risk), news that others like Balabanov’s work enough to put it in cinemas is wholly welcome.

Reviewed on: 02 May 2013
Share this with others on...
The Stoker packshot
A story of hit men and moral corruption is told through the eyes of the man who helps to burn the bodies.
Amazon link

Director: Alexey Balabanov

Writer: Alexey Balabanov

Starring: Mikhail Skryabin, Alexander Mosin Yuri Matveyev

Year: 2010

Runtime: 87 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Russia


Bradford 2013

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Me Too