For his first-ever film, Eric brought us our second helping of the famous Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky (the first having been “The Mirror” over seven years ago). This time around we got to see Tarkovsky’s very next film – Stalker – which has found its way into some very high positions on Best Film Of All Time Lists.
It’s a good film, but I’m not sure it’s quite that good.
Tarkovsky is as expected in the film – slow and deliberate, with very little dialogue, very long takes (the average take in the film is more than a minute long!), and frequent non-narrative interludes where the camera fixates on the environment and just allows the world to turn for a few minutes.
The film is chiefly concerned with a “Stalker” – this particular one looking very uncannily like a mixture of Woody Harrelson and Aaron Gordon. I was very distracted by this, for the record. The Stalker phenomenon is a bit obscure. It appears that some sort of potentially supernatural event (whether it was a meteor strike or an extraterrestrial crash or what is up for debate in the film) has occurred in the Russian wilderness, creating a region known as the “Zone” – a forbidden territory filled with mystery and shifting landscapes, a psychologically challenging territory full of traps where the shortest path is not necessarily a straight line. A Stalker is one who is capable of guiding visitors through the Zone to get to the “Room” – a room in an abandoned house which is said to grant the utmost desire of any who enter it.
The film follows one day in the life of our particular Stalker, who has two clients on this day, the Writer and the Professor. After evading a military presence intent on preventing people from getting into the Zone, the Stalker takes his guests on a rail car out into the wild. They encounter the house very quickly, but the Stalker explains that you cannot enter the house directly – only a circuitous route will get you there. The Writer initially decides to reject the Stalker’s advice and approach the house directly, but some voices in his head convince him to turn back.
Honestly, the tension is far more psychological than anything else, and it’s relatively impressive how Tarkovsky is able to make the Zone seem menacing without the benefit of creepy special effects. (You mean, the landscape is ever-shifting? Sure, dialog and non-linear paths are enough to convince me of that!) At any rate, after throwing numerous metal nuts with handkerchiefs tied to them (to avoid “traps” apparently), a scare where they thought the Professor got lost, taking a nice nap and finding a stray black dog, the troop eventually comes upon the frozen sewer that leads into the house.
At this point, it’s probably appropriate to give a bit of a flavor of three characters whose personalities are developed through the journey. We’ve got the Writer, a guy with an anti-authoritarian streak and a bit of a Jesus complex who has lost his inspiration and hopes to regain it by going in the room. We’ve got the Professor, whose motives are much less clear but appear to be related to scientific success. And we’ve got a different stalker named Porcupine, who was the one who taught our Stalker to navigate the Zone and who is a constant topic of discussion. One important point is that Porcupine established the rule that a Stalker must never enter the room. Of course he subsequently broke this rule, shortly thereafter became exceedingly rich…and then hanged himself.
Outside the Room the group has a terrible scuffle as the writer becomes reluctant to enter and the Professor reveals his true intent – to set off a small nuclear device to destroy the Room, because people who get wishes granted have a tendency to wish to turn into dictators and stuff. But the mystery of the Porcupine’s life is finally understood when the Stalker reveals that the Porcupine’s true intent in going into the room was to bring back his brother from the dead. Unfortunately, his inmost desire was in fact wealth and not his brother, and the guilt from this fact caused him to kill himself. At this point the Professor seems to believe that the Room only grants wishes in a way that is destructive to those who enter the room, and he dismantles the bomb. Neither visitor enters the room.
So everybody comes home (either without drama from the military guards, or without deciding to show us said drama) and we get a little denouement with the Stalker’s wife lamenting her fate having a husband with such a dangerous job but not regretting her love for him. And of course there’s Monkey, the Stalker’s daughter, who is apparently crippled because of his career (radiation, perhaps?) Of course, she’s developing some telekinetic skills to move glasses on a table, so that’s cool. What?!? Random telekinetic daughter? The End.
So, yeah. It’s kind of a weird film. Somewhat embarrassingly, for as much success as the movie had in putting together a psychological thriller I still wanted some special effects now and then. Sure, it was 1979 and that wasn’t happening and I think Tarkovsky did a good job with what he had, but for me there was still something missing. I guess I like my films a bit less atmospheric.