The Stoker: Film Review

A quirky, blood-spattered satire of Russian gangland shenanigans.

Shot on video with the unpolished feel of a project designed for after-hours Russian TV, Alexey Balabanov's film is a pitch-black comedy with a blunt approach to nudity, sex, violence and sudden death.

ROTTERDAM — Punchy dialogue must compete not only with a crazily intrusive score but also considerable audience laughter in The Stoker, a breezy, pitch-black comedy from Russia's king of cinematic controversy, Alexey Balabanov. With its blunt approach to nudity, sex, violence and sudden death, this is choice adults-only material that should obtain as much international festival exposure as the writer/director's similarly-mordant Cargo 200 and Morphia.

Shot on video with the unpolished feel of a project designed for after-hours Russian TV, it could easily find cult success via DVD and on the small screen in more 'permissive' markets.

The Stoker revolves around a minimalist central performance by craggy veteran Mikhail Skryabin, sharing his name with his character. The fictional Skryabin is "a major, a Yakut, and a Hero of the Soviet Union." (The Yakuts are a historically oppressed ethnic group from mid-Siberia.)

Having been decorated for his services in the 1980s Afghan war, Skryabin is now essentially a janitor, tending the vast subterranean boilers of a building in an unnamed city (most likely St. Petersburg). Concussion-stunned, Skryabin divides his time between tapping out letter by letter a short story about the land of his ancestors, and the more arduous task of keeping the furnaces burning.

Visitors to his sweltering workplace-cum-residence include glamorous daughter Sasha (Aida Tumutova), who co-owns a Yakut-themes fur-business, and representatives of the underworld, who use the furnaces to incinerate inconvenient corpses. Boundaries between cops and criminals are fluid indeed in this mid-90s Russia. The local kingpin is Skryabin's former comrade-in-arms, "Sergeant" (Alexander Mosin), whose taciturn henchman "Bison" (Matveyev) is sleeping not only with Sasha, but also with her business-partner Masha (Korotaeva), Sergeant's scheming, ambitious daughter.

Balabanov structures his material with the aplomb of a gifted farceur, choreographing various comings and goings across the atmospherically grim city -- many on foot -- as the characters' fates become minutely and lethally intertwined.

In the early stretches, some will wonder why on earth the perky score is so very loud. Balabanov deploys a small handful of Latin-themed pop tracks throughout, including infernally catchy cuts by popular fusion-guitarist Didula.

But very quickly this repetitive, jaunty incongruity becomes a major part of the fun. The tinny music propels us through what is, despite Skryabin's war-traumatized slowness, a bracingly fast-paced, broad-brush allegorical satire of 1990s Russia as a near-lawless dystopia of greedy immorality.

Just desserts do arrive, however, in a climax blending startlingly unexpected bloodshed with genuine poignancy, rounded off with a tart monochrome coda visualizing Skryabin's literary dabblings. Performances are uniformly on-the-money in a picture which has little truck with subtlety. 

Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival
Production company: CTB Production
Cast: Mikhail Skryabin, Yuri Matveyev, Alexander Mosin, Aida Tumutova, Anna Korotaeva
 Director, screenwriter: Alexey Balabanov
Producer: Sergey Selyanov
Director of photography: Alexandr Simonov
Production designer: Anastasiya Karimulina
Editor: Tatyana Kuzmicheva
Sales: Intercinema, Moscow
No rating, 84 minutes