Film review: The Stoker (15)

IT’S hard to define the films of Alexei Balabanov; he’s like an angry Aki Kaurismäki, or a more impassive Gaspar Noé.

The Stoker (15)

Star rating: * * *

In Russia, he’s a popular controversialist and provocateur of an eclectic mix of genres, including his 1997 hit Brother, where the country’s chaotic transition from Communism is mirrored by a former conscript who joins up with his hitman brother.

The Stoker is no less allegorical, violent, blackly comic and occasionally bewildering. A shell-shocked war hero (Mikhail Skryabin) is now back from ­Afghanistan. In a St Petersburg’s basement, he shovels coal into a furnace and taps out an unending novel on a typewriter in a manner that would have Sisyphus nodding along in recognition.

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Every so often he’s visited by a hitman, who uses the oven as a useful means of disposing of inconvenient corpses. And every so often, the vet visits his beautiful daughter (Aida Tumutova), who hopes to marry the same silent slabfaced hitman who fuels her father’s furnace. What she doesn’t know is that he’s also seeing her business partner, setting in motion a rivalry with tragic consequences.

The theme here is hellfire and damnation but with an austere lack of emotion and urgency. In The Stoker, even the pacing is deliberately hellish, with the camera ­patiently tracking characters as they trudge around snowy St Petersburg to an accordion soundtrack that initially feels jaunty and appealing but eventually adds to the feeling of sufferance in an off-kilter landscape where sex and violence is portrayed in such a deliberate, unreactive manner that you are left in no doubt that Balabanov is toying with his audience’s expectations.

Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday until 23 May; Glasgow Film Theatre, 24-26 May