Sunday, March 3, 2013
Stoker (2013) Movie Thoughts
The instability of the opulent Stoker family is brought to a head after the death of the family's patriarch. With the family's one daughter, the quiet and fairly unusual India(Mia Wasikowska), and the emotionally fragile, previously distant mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) now confronted with a reality that their loss has left in its wake, a deeply rooted tension. In the days of mourning to come, surprises come in the form of a long-never-known uncle (Matthew Goode), who has apparently come after years of being out of country, living the busy life of a jet-setter. And yet despite all this, nothing has ever been alright apparently. And they are about to get a whole lot worse as the extended-staying Uncle Charlie seems to not only have a bevy of terrible secrets, but the ladies of the house seem inextricably fascinated by him. And thus is the framework of Stoker, the US feature debut by the one and only Chan-Wook Park, who's films in South Korea have become relatively famous for not merely their visual panache, but of his attraction to some of humanity's most disconcerting behavior.
Taking cues from Hitchcock, and perhaps even Lynch, Park's big western first is an all-stops-gone hallucinogenic tribute to the classic Gothic Horror/Psychological Thriller, with mostly solid results. With a majority of the film centering on the life of the young India, we are immediately granted audience to her less than social tendencies, as well as her increasingly murky choices. Where most murder mysteries derive their juice from placing our protagonist in a place where the clues lead us to the guilty party, Stoker gets great mileage from playing us against ourselves as we are left willy-nilly with India & Evelyn, wondering where the proverbial shoes will drop. Within the first 30 minutes alone, the household, and all close parties from various corners of the family have been established as prime players in a mystery that isn't here to play nice. We are forced to fumble about in hopes of sympathy with our female leads as the ever-bizarre Charlie seems primed to close in on the estate, with deadly intent.
Not sure I can go much further in discussing the film without elaborating a little on one of its shining elements; the character direction. For a piece that is pretty much a closed circle psychological game between three people, there is a surprising amount done in areas that perhaps screenwriter, Wentworth Miller (Under the name, Ted Foulke) might have gone light with. And in a work that is so packed with such visual punch, it's refreshing to again see Park grant his actors room to become characters that quietly burn deep where necessary.
As we are often witnessing the tale through the eyes of India, Wasikowska is a genuine find, as a unique girl wandering through a most awkward time of her life, and in need of some better grasp of this new world sans father. Already markedly quiet and strange, she is an embodiment of an era when the young are at the apex of their budding sexuality, which is flirted with from the getgo, especially via the uncle she never knew. And then adding a dash of inspirational ennui, the film is also a skewed "coming of age" tale, where our lead seems eager to find her path, but is finding herself endlessly stifled by perhaps her own inexperience. And she is already considered a pretty talented young lady. Whether it be playing the piano, or even painting, there is an ongoing question as to where this gilded cage is about to break. And in the guise of a classic mystery tale, with tropes ala Nancy Drew, the movie is unafraid to make us into voyeurs, thereby making us as suspect as anyone else. And Wasikowka's performance is that note perfect elaboration of that ambiguousness. We both pity her, and fear for her. But it simply isn't satisfied with stopping here, which is more than noteworthy.
Goode's Charlie is perhaps the film's most slyly challenging role, as the surface implies a lot less than is delivered in his expressions. While clearly something is in no way right with this guy, there's also this playful bent being taken with him as he slowly entrenches himself into the lives of the Stoker ladies, and it is a game that we discover has been long in the planning. His specific brand of malice is only matched by his unrelenting creepiness. (that damned stare)There is even this often crude sexual play that's at work early on that is subtle in its hilarity if one is looking for it. Park and Goode are aware of this particular mechanic, and play it to almost absurd extremes right off the bat. Park and Goode seem to know that this is all in the name of a larger series of swerves that come racing along in the third act. He's virtually a wolf in wolf's clothing, and that's especially tricky to play with.
And then there's Kidman's Evelyn. Even in a role that can be considered a distant third, there is a class and almost beautiful sense of the sad in her role that makes for a surprising punch come later. This is a woman who's entire marriage prior seems to have been another one not unlike a cage. Whether she be the wife of a wealthy fixture of the community, or a distant mother with one heck of a gulf to fill, there's a massive amount of tension to Kidman's presence that is hard to ignore. Even as the camerawork and lighting highlight what looks to be cosmetic work done in the real, it only adds to the whole by portraying a person imprisoned by her choices in life. A great deal of the storytelling again leaves us unsure whether to sympathize or not, and by design it is a potent choice. There is a speech near the finale that feels bare in ways we rarely see from such high profile names, and it delivers a much deserved gut punch to the proceedings.
So how did this one US debut come to be the almost complete home run that it is? Was surprised to discover right off the cuff that Park had powerful support as his prime producers on the film were none other by the Scott Brothers, Ridley & the late, great Tony. As staunch visualists, this is the kind of support few directors could ever dream of attaining, and Park goes for broke at nearly every opportunity, allowing the often thrilling cinematography by Park regular, Chung Chung-hoon to be seamlessly be intercut and weaved by way of often poetic use of CG. With the virtually isolated southern setting, and the surrounding green seemingly ready to envelope humanity regardless of the Stoker home and its enchantments on display, there is a neverending sense of deep unease that infiltrates every single scene. Even when certain elements such as India's classmates, local law enforcement and their behaviors, and the almost Twin Peaks-esque countryscapes give off the vibe of a world divisions away from our own, it is difficult to deny the hypnotics on display. And even when character decisions in the latter half range from puzzling to ludicrous, and character ages seem more than a little off, a sense of playful, coupled with an extreme, almost Kubrick-like confidence makes up for it in ways that may very well linger in the dream spaces for weeks.
It's very rare when the common themes of an artist from another culture is capable of translating themselves seamlessly in another language, and yet Stoker makes a case for that rarity with often cold, deceptive ease. Up to this point, many of Park's most effective works consider society's most frightening possibilities as great tests. His films tend to explore some of the darker characters, and asks why they may indeed require a stage of their own within of our general fabric. Not unlike cinematic rabblerousers such as Harmony Korine (who enjoys an interesting cameo here), he refuses to moralize or judge, and is more interested in the questions they pose than in any simple declarations. And even if the script isn't always up to the standards of the technical here, there is so much to consider about the American experience that is brought to the table. Finding beauty within the horrific is perhaps best expressed in visual arts such as museum works, and cinema. And for a film more about simmering, difficult notions rather than graphic gore, there are volumes of terrifying loveliness to be found in Stoker..