James’s review published on Letterboxd:
Adapted from the Strugatsky Brothers' classic, Roadside Picnic, Stalker is a film of its own, a film individual even of Tarkovsky's main body of work.
This is definitely my most personal of Tarkovsky's films, being the one I saw first, and essentially being the reason I fell in love not only with Tarkovsky, but with arthouse cinema in general. I believe this is what Tarkovsky was trying to achieve in Solaris, and not only does it succeed better than its counterpart as a film in general, but it succeeds better on a thematic level too. It's complex, though not confusing. It's slow and brooding, yet majestically, transcendentally so. In fact, there are many accounts that this is a film that has put people to sleep; and not a sleep of boredom, but one of transcendence.
It is, essentially, the story of three men, who venture into a meteor-struck, empty wasteland called 'The Zone', a place filled with deadly traps, where there is 'a room', a place where one's innermost desires will be met. Though this plot is not merely superficial. It is a spiritual journey, a journey of the soul and of the conscience. Their dystopian, industrial, faithless society is in stark contrast to the dangerous beauty of The Zone. The Writer and Professor who enter The Zone with the Stalker are products of this dystopian environment, and in their search for fulfilment, they are shrouded by their own obtuse rationale.
The Writer is the most out-going of the three. He is a successful, wealthy writer, though a cynical alcoholic who suffers from writer's block and goes to The Zone for inspiration. His approach to life is abstract and cynical, though brashly so. He seeks truth through the zone, though only in an abstract, pretentious manner, mocking those who seek to learn the objective truth (like the Professor), though not seeking through any meaningful means himself. He is shown to have no respect for The Zone, yet it constantly spares him from his complete lack of regard for it's demand of respect. He is worthy of The Room, yet it is not known why. He posseses a virtue for which The Zone has spared him, though we do not know which. It could be something of his aforementioned nature, but The Zone holds a moral and ethical complexity, that spares those who disrespect it.
The Professor is the Writer's antithesis in every way. While the Writer constantly spews his obnoxious, empty ponderings, the Professor speaks reservedly, carrying with him, a degree of contempt, especially for the Writer. Though the Professor, despite his outward appearance, is no less ignorant than his counterpart. He, as previously mentioned, only seeks the objective truth; what lays before him, seeking a Nobel Prize for physics on his voyage to the Room. He seeks no substantial or true knowledge, looking only to find what lays before him as opposed to what lays within him (the Writer jesting over this in his referral to God being a triangle). His study is merely empty, selfish and ultimately self-indulgent. And the true depth of his character is later revealed, in his attempts to destroy The Room, so that the wrong people may not have their wishes granted.
Naturally, these two forces of ignorance resent each other, one for the other's obtuseness, and one for the other's close-mindedness, both being ultimately faithless too. Yet caught in the middle of these two supposed intellectuals, is the Stalker. He neither seeks the rational, yet unsubstantial truth, nor the abstract, empty truth of the pseudo-intellectual. He does not belong to the rational, sepia-toned world of the Professor and Writer, but the beautiful, empty yet dangerous and fear-demanding Zone. While the others are frustrated by The Zone's incomprehensibly obtuse nature, finding neither objective truth, nor cynical reasoning to console with, the Stalker is in his element here, finding what remains of faith in the Zone's ambiguousness. It is a place where one must exude respect, where one must have faith in their stalker, where man reverts to his simplest form, existing not in a bastardised, rationalised, deformed idea of the natural, but purely in the raw, unadulterated world, where one must simply comply with The Zone's unforgiving rawness. He is completely detached from The Zone, using it as a place of prayer and meditation. And the Stalker resents his peers for their lack of faith, not only that of religious faith, but of personal faith too. The Stalker does not seek truth, as much as he does experience it. He has the faith in himself, in God and in The Zone, which the others, despite their respective, though shallow intelligence, cannot attain.
However, the Stalker is not free of his own vices. His affiliation with The Zone and his bringing of others to its deadly presence, is not only reckless, but selfish on his part. He abandons his wife and child, constantly risking imprisonment or death, for what is ultimately self-indulgent. He brings others, not out of compassion, but out of an estranged sense of importance and superiority. His expectations of the others and their faith in The Room, and their own desires, is frankly ridiculous. Their rationale is not totally unwarranted. While the Stalker is not ignorant, as they are, he is unempathetic. The sheer shallowness of his being is exposed near the end, with his pathetic squabble with the Professor.
The Zone is almost a character in itself. It holds a certain degree of life, consistent throughout. It is a confusing place, though one where trying to comprehend this confusion could prove fatal. It is beautiful, despite its immediate ugliness, the consequences of The Zone are never actually presented first-hand, yet there remains an underlying haunting aura to its atmosphere. Perhaps The Zone isn't real (there are plenty of elements within The Zone that suggest that), but ultimately that doesn't matter. It is the idea of The Zone that matters. It is a dystopia, more of the mind than of the environment, and this accommodates that idea.
Stalker's dialogue is potentially the best of all of Tarkovsky's. Though being generally scarce, what is spoken is always intensely meaningful. There are many monologues throughout, each one revealing an entirely new dynamic to the characters, of whom we are told little of. Nothing spoken here is redundant, and I don't believe it is too amiss to not only regard this as having some of the greatest dialogue of all time, but also as having one of the greatest screenplays of all time. What Tarkovsky tried to achieve in Solaris, he achieves here. Solaris is hard to resonate with, because there is never really a reason given to resonate with it, on account of its complete lack of life. Stalker's lack of life is played to a greater effect here, and manifests significantly better here.
Stalker's cinematography is the essential element to its transcendence. In the ugliness of the film, there is a blaring beauty. Tarkovsky separates The Zone from the rest of the world, through his utilisation of colour. The Zone is in colour, while the surrounding world remains in a depressing sepia. Yet the hope of a faithful world outside of The Zone, is brought into perspective by the Stalker's daughter, Monkey. She is a product of the zone, disabled and mute, though possessive of supernatural powers. She carries The Zone in her being. her being the only thing outside of The Zone that is shot in colour.
The framing of Stalker is a style that would find prevalence in Tarkovsky's later work, though not to the degree of extremity here. It is very held-back. In fact, most of what exists within Stalker, exists within this framing. Stalker has that time pressure Tarkovsky talked of, the image carrying a certain weight, which is let to manifest itself. Nearly everything that happens in The Zone is shot in wide. The characters are at complete mercy to The Zone's sublimity, and the camera stays back almost helplessly, creating a constant silent tension, which looms over the film. The camera does, however tighten on subjects, during moments of extreme emotional or personal importance. During the dream sequence, the Stalker is shot in close-up, or during certain assertions or revelations, there is a noticeable contrast in the tightness of the frame. Oftentimes, tight framing is at its best, when juxtaposed with wide framing, and few understood how to utilise this quite like Tarkovsky.
The mise en scène in Stalker is an extension of this beauty in the foul concept that I stated previously. The world is depressing, the clothing and unfamiliarly familiar bleak environment play major roles in establishing the world at the beginning. And The Zone itself is incredible. The tanks, the abandoned buildings, the memorabilia of those long-gone; it is so incredibly beautiful, yet simultaneously disturbing. The contrast of environments and the haunting overtones of the film, lie largely in the mise en scène.
It would be wrong to talk of the cinematography, without mentioning its transcendence. While I believe it lies greatly in the editing too, it cannot exist without the cinematography. And what is pictured, through the framing and the mise en scène, and the subtle, yet seamless movements, is meditative in its nature. The film simply stands back in its richness, allowing for scenes such as the cart scene or the dream sequence, both respectively being masterpieces of transcendental filmmaking, of which is even more abundant here than it is in Mirror. It's almost as if Tarkovsky, in his unparalleled cinematic genius, has created a cinematic prayer. The only issues I have in regards to Stalker's cinematography are that it occasionally suffers from random zoom syndrome, and that on occasion, a greater effect could have been achieved through compromise in the distance of the framing,
I touched on the prevalence editing had on the transcendental filmmaking. It could probably be assumed from what has preceded, but Stalker's editing is very slow, though not monotonous, as in a film like Solaris. The pressure built up in these shots owes itself to the editing, which refuses to compromise its pace. Stalker does not reach its emotional heights, without such effective, yet simplistic editing. Movements can replace cuts for a maintaining of flow. There were minor occasions, such as where the wife practically has an exorcism on the floor, that the cut should have been hastened. But generally, Stalker's editing remains a testament to its narrative and cinematographical qualities.
Stalker is a genuine contender for the greatest sound in film of all time. It is almost redundant, me talking about it, but it is no better than here. There is no audial barrier in Stalker. Sound is manipulated completely outside of the bounds of reality. They persist on the screen long after leaving the frame, the are inserted, removed or isolated. The waterfall, the train tracks, Ode to Joy, the consistent noises of the tram during the journey, the meat mincer scene; they are all examples of incredible sound editing. And the score too, is something beautifully haunting and unfamiliar, completely befitting of the film. The only directors I can think of who even come close to Tarkovsky's excellence in sound are Coppola and Bresson. And even then, I'm not sure if their sound was as consistently brilliant as Tarkovsky's.
On top of all this, Stalker is also a supremely well-acted film. Tarkovsky regulars, Grinko and Solonitsyn return, with familiarly masterful performances, but Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy is the standout here, as Stalker. His intimacy with The Zone is captured perfectly, in what is a deeply emotive performance. I have said it before and will continue to day it: the acting in Tarkovsky's films is hugely underrated.
Stalker narrowly misses out on 5* thanks to some minor, minor elements, but from my prior experiences, this has only grown on me. If I did die, thanks to the making of a film, as Tarkovsky did, I wouldn't be too disappointed if that film turned out to be Stalker.