Wednesday, March 6, 2013


The first impression of Stoker is nearly exasperating in that the film, the English-language debut of famed South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park (he of the aggressively stylized and violent art house confection Oldboy), so delicate in design, is a messy hodgepodge of lurid mystery and feminine coming of age.  The design, however, is nearly intoxicating, at least at the start.  Never mind the silliness that begins Stoker, a lilting bit of voice over narration where our main character, a dour young woman named India (Mia Wasikowska) explains her supernatural gift of hearing, its difficult not to marvel at the craftsmanship of the imagery and the eerie tease of this psycho-sexual thriller.  Superficially, Stoker is a success because it bridges suspense in such artfully composed ways; dramatically it's more than a bit overwrought.  But there's a small wake of cinematic grandeur just because the composition is so interesting, so deliberate and inventively assured yet flowing and fluid-- it reads early on as a nervy, demonic thriller staged by Terrence Malick, as Park swoons with gothic suspense on the nature-y backdrop of the immense estate Stoker is set on.  But Park is mostly grabbing from Hitchcock.  Stoker on the onset is an art house re-tooling of the master's excellent 1943 mystery Shadow of a Doubt.

India's father has just been killed.  Ruled an accident, but shrouded with excessive mystery, the event concurs with her eighteenth birthday.  From the start, something feels amiss-- the young lady is introverted and clearly left alone in the sprawling estate, and in nearly fable-like fashion, she finds her birthday presents in a tree.  Her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is distant and cold; her only rapport with her sullen daughter is teased in passive judgements.  Little is known about her father (played in flashbacks by Dermot Mulroney), except that he and India bonded over hunting, and perhaps a fondness for saddle shoes-- India's ritualistic birthday present.  What shrouds the nearly dialogue-free film is its perverse mystery, one that is slow to unravel, and unfortunately starts to collapse as it does so.  The strength of Stoker, is when its oddly withholding, as the artifice is what intoxicates.

What is to be made of Stoker.  The title itself seems to recall Bram Stoker, and while the film holds it as the namesake of the family at its center and there's not a literal blood-sucker in the group; the suggestion holds a bit of ground as the mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) enters the fray.  Seen, or nearly just heard (remember India has some voodoo heightened aural skills) at her father's funeral, Charlie makes his appearance known at the reception service afterwards with intentions of staying with his coping distant relatives.  Goode makes a pretty and haunting figure, but the stretch of Stoker starts with a huge leap of faith, as his creepy-as-can-be uncle saunters onstage with a smug charm, but such a frozen, vacant stare, that stinks, reeks of up-to-no-good.  While the onlookers choose to merely point out the casualness of his appearance (he perhaps is more in the mood for a rousing cocktail party instead of a funeral recession...), reality is gently pushed aside.  Again the inventive and swaying visual aesthetics lure in favor of the drama.

India, on the cusp of womanhood, is frightened, intrigued, and perhaps even slightly turned on as the uncle she never knew existed enters her life.  Disgusted, perhaps, at his interest in her mother, but intuitive to the fact that Evelyn seems more of cipher character in the story, her story.  The character itself is slightly fascinating, as she (along with the movie itself) is aloof enough to leave room for analysis.  Dressed in morbid colors, top and skirts that look like Jane Austin couture made special for Wednesday Addams, the dark haired girl is quiet, independent and singularly literary minded.  Wasikowska, for whatever its worth, gives off a moody, frightful and wonderful presence, and the brings the quiet expressiveness she brought to her Jane Eyre.  It's unfortunate that Park is more invested in production design and caters the actors more so as just another set of props.  Gorgeous, distilling and beautifully photographed props, but props nonetheless. 

Partially the reasoning behind that must be attributed to the elementally generics of the plot (Stoker was written by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller), for the mystery and the gloom and doom of the setup are far more disappointing and it drifts into the dithering.  Shortly after Uncle Charlie arrives, for instance, people suddenly start disappearing.  First, the Stoker's longtime housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville), presented at the beginning as a confidant to the distraught India vanishes without a trace-- Evelyn and, one assumes, the authorities are too consumed by grief or ennui to further investigate.  India's suspicions are further upped and aroused when her trusty Aunt Gwendolyn (played by the warmly welcomed Jacki Weaver) arrives for solace and comfort.  Of course, she's well aware of Charlie and a past that the audience will be beholden to later, and is quickly shoo-ed away in a timely fashion.  The most artfully morbid sequence of Stoker spills the beams to India of her beloved aunts grisly murder with an inventively chilly cell phone ringtone, a great and sad touch for a film with an expert sound design team.

And while pieces of Stoker are relentlessly withheld to latch onto its suspense, there outlines are nearly in place well before.  Charlie, the sinister seducer and India as his chosen latchkey, but the unsatisfactory plot details get in the way of some of the nervy, twisty fun that could be had, as well as the interesting dynamics between the actors as they finesse their way through Park's gothic house of mirrors.  And even as the film shifts, nearly impenetrably between reality, fantasy and memory, the road it invariably leads to is far less exciting or interesting that where it stops along the way.  India's queasily erotic playing of the piano which extends to a seductive duet with Charlie, or egging on tease of the flesh to a local high school boy (played by Alden Ehrenreich) which leads to a near rape, and his eventual undoing-- all of which informs India of freshly veiled blood lust, an escape to the dark side that Charlie unsubtly dangles in her face.  It's one thing for a deranged character to feel in control of her own fate, but it's quite another to work it as a metaphor for impending womanhood.  Stoker takes the case that accepting ones inner sociopath might hold something to root for in its leading character, the film unfortunately nearly plays it kitsch, albeit ugly, bloody kitsch.

While Stoker's plot and ever consuming silliness and ugliness prevent the film from being considered a great piece of art, the alluring aesthetic of the film still tantalizes on the thrill of what Park and team could have created had the story being stronger.  His visual inventiveness is sharp as a tick, even in the most mundane of sets.  I was instantly struck of the an early image of India sitting in a chair in her breakfast nook being consoled by Mrs. McGarrick-- the words themselves render little meaning, but she sits in chair or enormous weight and height, as the smile sunken in India plays with her food-- she looked so small, so adolescent and innocent.  There's more meaning and structural weight in those fleeting frames than in the bulk of Stoker's one-hundred minute run time. Or the impossibly beautiful switch cut from a swath of hair to a meadow.  Or the elegant circle of shoes that frame India as a passage of her fathers death; shoes plays a big visual touch in Stocker.  Or the snow drop-like shifting of letter as India unravels the mystery of Uncle Charlie-- there's a poetic grandeur to the movement if not to the drama.  It marks a true directorial scope for Stoker to come across as elegant as it is, even if it reads as a hat trick for Park's past achievements.

I almost wish he had just left the two dueling sociopaths and hit the road with Evelyn, as Park matching Kidman's eye for muse-like shepherding for strong willed directors might have provoked a stronger narrative, or at least a less dreadfully boring violent one.  As is, Evelyn drifts in and out like a long lost Tennessee Williams' heroine only at the last stretch to give a biting and jolting monologue of her resentment for her little girl.  Kidman aces the line readings with a twitching and involving benevolence, but it feels a little too late for a character sidelined for most of the grisly proceedings.  In the end, Stoker stokes, lots of people die, an we're left championing the root work of a new (post)modern monster.  C-

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