Director Mark O’Connor arrived at the Galway Film Fleadh with a bang in 2012. Armed with a manifesto and two films under his arm he wanted to shake up the Irish film industry a little bit. The two films were King of the Travellers (released in cinemas this year) and his latest film Stalker which is yet to be released. The manifesto got quite a bit of press and Stalker was second in the best Irish feature award (no shame in being second to the excellent Good Vibrations) and was widely praised at the time. So why hasn’t the film arrived on our screens? Irish films need publicity to stand a chance of being seen at the cinemas and considering the marketing budgets are miniscule surely festival goodwill is an opportunity to help with the marketing a little bit. This is an argument that will run and run about why we do not see Irish films at the cinema and it is one I am sure I will be returning to. But coming back to Stalker, what does Mark O’Connor have in store for us? Well for me Stalker is as fascinating an Irish film as I have seen in quite some time.
Stalker tells the story of Oliver (John Connors), a homeless man wandering the streets who befriends a young boy called Tommy (Barry Keoghan) who he helps fight off bullies. Tommy’s life is in a bad way with a drug addicted mother and a crazy drug dealing uncle Rudyard (Peter Coonan). Oliver vows to help Tommy but his intensity scares Tommy a little. Plot wise that is about it but this is a film less inclined towards plot and more towards tone and feeling.
In my reviews of O’Connor’s previous films Between the Canals and King of the Travellers I mentioned that his films feel a little rough around the edges. That may have sounded like a criticism and in some ways it was. But it is also a compliment in that it gives his films a particular feel and tone that not all Irish filmmakers have. In Stalker he is aided by some beautiful camera work by Eoin Macken which initially brings a touch of the fairytale to an otherwise dark film. In the final third the camera work is used in a heightened fashion which also serves the ending well. So the look of the film is excellent - what about the rest of it?
John Connors is superb as Oliver; completely convincing as someone with some serious mental health problems. He is also co-writer here and he is a real talent. He commands the screen in a very naturalistic way and it looks effortless. Barry Keoghan is also very good and is an actor to watch. The two share some scenes that are intense and emotional. Peter Coonan is his usual manic self and his character Rudyard is an odious one. But Coonan plays it a little too broad and over the top at times and I would like to have seen a little more control in the performance.
The film does have some issues. There is a scene set in a cinema that is a little unconvincing. While I liked the idea of the scene, the way it plays out doesn’t really ring true. I don’t want to give away any more details that would spoil it but it comes across as a little too on the nose in relation to the state of modern Irish filmmaking. Perhaps it is the script that is at fault here as it gives Oliver too much information to impart. It is the only time in the film that Oliver sounds like he is explicitly delivering the words and viewpoint of the writer rather than just talking. There is also a bit of a problem towards the climax when the plot and narrative take over. Stalker (and indeed O’Connor) is at its best when it is freewheeling along without any real narrative concern. The utterly strange feeling is more than enough to sustain real interest. But the film rallies to deliver a really intense and feverish climax that works very well indeed.
There is a real feeling here that with Stalker, Mark O’Connor has finally found his cinematic voice. Stalker has a more experimental feel and this benefits O’Connor hugely. This approach may well produce a masterpiece in the future. And with the wonderful John Connors writing and starring with him he may well have found his muse. I for one look forward to the next two films arriving in Galway.