The Stoker (Kochegar) (15)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner16/05/2013

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 87 mins

Blackly comic, deceptively deadpan Russian drama that's both surprisingly moving and contains moments of genuinely shocking violence, though the ridiculously jaunty, ever-present score eventually becomes something of an endurance test.

What's it all about?
Written and directed by Aleksey Balabanov, The Stoker (not to be confused with Park Chan-wook's Stoker) is set in mid-1990s Russia and stars Mikhail Skryabin as Major Ivan Skryabin, an Afghan War veteran who now works as an apartment block stoker and spends all his spare time writing a story on an old typewriter about the Russian persecution of his people, the Yakuts.

Skryabin's occasional visitors include: Vera (Varvara Belokurova), a little girl who likes him to read her his story; his own grown-up daughter Sasha (Aida Tumutova), who lives in the apartment he no longer uses; and local gangsters Misha (Aleksandr Mosin) and Bison (Yuriy Matveev), who use the stoker's furnace to dispose of a never-ending stream of corpses, with Skryabin turning a blind eye.

Meanwhile, Sasha is simultaneously involved in a business partnership with Misha's capricious daughter Masha (Anna Korotayeva) and in a relationship with the monosyllabic Bison, who is also sleeping with Masha on the side. And when Masha discovers Bison's duplicity, she sets a violent chain of events in motion.

The Good
The acting is excellent: both Mikhail Skryabin and Yuriy Matveev deliver deceptively deadpan performances that pay off brilliantly in different ways, the former constantly keeping you guessing, the latter genuinely chilling. There's also strong support from both Aleksandr Mosin and Anna Korotayeva, whose maniacal laughter marks her out early on as a wrong'un.

Balabanov takes an appropriately slow-burning approach to the story throughout, with lengthy shots of characters travelling to and from their various destinations. However, he's careful to throw in a number of disarmingly shocking moments, whether it's casual nudity, sex or shocking violence, all of which primes you for the violence of the finale.

The Great
Naturally there's an allegorical element to the story (the mid-1990s setting is no coincidence) and the script toys with some interesting ideas about good and evil, loyalty, family, revenge, warfare, persecution and the consequences of standing by and doing nothing. There's also a bizarre coda to the film that involves Skryabin's story being dramatised in a way that recalls last year's Tabu.

By far the strangest element of the film, however, is the ridiculously jaunty and irritatingly repetitive guitar-based score, which starts out as a light-hearted addition and eventually becomes something of an endurance test; it's clearly a deliberate decision on Balabanov's part, but its ultimate effectiveness is questionable, to say the least.

Worth seeing?
Impressively directed and superbly acted, The Stoker an engaging, blackly comic Russian drama that is well worth seeking out. Highly recommended.

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Content updated: 24/09/2018 10:26

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