There’s a rumor going around in this world. I’ve heard it. Chances are that if you were alive during any part of the 80s, you may have also heard it. If you are poor and live in Russia, your life probably sucks. In addition to that, there are jobs in this world that would drive you – yes you, with all of your first world problems like “my cell phone won’t connect to 3G” – absolutely mad. Russian filmmaker Alexey Balabanov’s The Stoker is a movie about one of those lives, stuck in one of those jobs. He draws for his audience, without a doubt, a poignant display of the differences between the ideals of the old guard of the USSR and the new, organized crime filled world of the new Russia.
Ivan (Mikhail Skyabin) is an aging, weathered veteran of Afghanastan, once a war hero, who now spends his days shoveling coal into a massive boiler system. In between rounds of stoking the fire, he types (with one finger) words into a novel that he’s been working on for years, visits with the local children who come to watch the flames and then he sleeps, covered in dust, sad and mostly alone. Every once in a while, a group of local gangsters come by to burn a body. “They are bad people,” says their leader to Ivan, who swaps war stories with him, and that’s what makes it okay.
Juxtaposed with the deep gray emptiness of Ivan’s world is the lively world of the people who visit him. From his daughter, who takes time away from standing in her apartment completely naked to run a fur business, or her blockhead mobster boyfriend, the soft-spoken, murderous surprise lothario Bison. For every ten minutes we get of Ivan shoveling coal, we get a few moments of color – personified with sexual encounters, contract killings and people walking through snow-covered streets.
The Stoker moves methodically between the slow, depressing reality and the twisted, handily weaved drama that begins to form around Ivan’s friends and family. And like the story he tells within the book he’s writing, it’s about those with position and power taking advantage of the less fortunate. As we watch Ivan continue to sit quietly as things begin to unravel for those around him, it’s a matter of waiting to see when the revelled war hero will come out. When does the loyal, moral old guard take a stand against the crime and corruption that is engulfing what used to be a proud nation? When things begin to go bad for his daughter, the film builds to a crescendo and delivers a perfect pay-off for Ivan’s story. Even as it crawls to a bitter, icy close, Balabanov shows a great deal of love for the proud man at the heart of his film.
If you had any doubts about the fact that being a poor remnant of Cold War Russia living as a boiler stoker is a depressing life, this movie provides a definitive answer. It’s plenty Russian and plenty depressing, with an extra side dish of both Russian and depressing. It has some quirks, but there’s little else but well-executed bleakness in Stoker. An incredibly well acted, expertly composed story that is deeply affecting, but uncomfortably sad.
The Upside: It’s very well-acted, atmospheric and carefully composed to build to a perfect climax.
The Downside: It’s very depressing. Really depressing. And effective at being depressing.