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Stoker (2013)

March 3, 2013

stoker

 

written by: Wentworth Miller

produced by: Tony Scott, Ridley Scott and Michael Costigan

directed by: Park Chan-wook

rating: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content) 

runtime: 99 min.

U.S. release date: March 1, 2013 

 

Watching “Stoker” I found myself immediately mesmerized by the stylish filmmaking and expectedly entertained by the spirited cast. It’s a good thing too, since the screenplay is borderline goofy. It’s a peculiar kind of goofy, one that offers a refreshingly strange (yet somewhat familiar) atmosphere and one in which everything else about the film makes up for its story flaws. The title may invoke a vampire classic, but this English-language debut from Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy” and “Thirst”) isn’t that obvious. It instead on deft visuals and symbolism and also wonderfully toys with an unidentifiable tone (like a hybrid of David Lynch and early Tim Burton), while landing somewhere in the psychological thriller and horror genre.

We meet the Stoker family after two recent events that have occurred at the same time: withdrawn India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned eighteen and her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a tragic auto accident. On the day of the funeral, India meets her father’s brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), the mysterious uncle she never knew she had. He stays with the moody India and her distant mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), adding a multi-layered presence for the two women; comforting for Evelyn yet awkward and suspicious for India. The longer Charlie’s presence is felt in the expansive Stoker home though, the more alluring he becomes to India, arousing something unsettling in her that may or may not have already been there.

 

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Amid the literary nods and apparent use of symbolism, it’s difficult to finger the setting here (although it was filmed in Tennessee), but there are obvious Hitchcock influences present in this artfully crafted film. “Stoker” has an allusive Uncle Charlie with a mysterious past just as “Shadow of the Doubt” does and composer Clint Mansell provides an evocative soundtrack, reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s work in “Psyhco” and “Marnie”. Much of that is purposeful, but Park Chan-wook’s own indomitable imprint is all over this picture, one that is bound to receive much post-viewing discussions and interpretations. “Stoker” may have been inspired by many filmmakers and genres, but it is nevertheless an intoxicating and provocative viewing experience.

Screenwriter Wentworth Miller (primarily known for his acting on the television series “Prison Break”) gives the film a script that is dense with material, but that doesn’t mean it’s all that original. It’s a solid script that focuses on familial tension, subtly developing an unspoken macabre by adding certain supporting characters to the mix. These characters serve to emphasize the Stoker family’s clouded history by and provoke a response from certain character’s repressed demeanor. It seems that head housekeeper Mrs. Garnish (Phyllis Somerville, “Little Children”) and visiting Aunt Gwen (Jacki Weaver, who is seemingly everywhere) have plenty to be nervous about considering all they know about the family, especially Charlie’s past. You know that can’t be good. The teen boys in India’s life are there to stoke (pun intended) India’s true nature. Chris Pitts (Lucas Till, “X-Men: First Class”) is written as the conventional teen hunk who shows his attraction through bullying whereas Whip Taylor (Alden Ehrenreich, “Beautiful Creatures”) appears to be the only peer to offer friendship to India. Both of them see India as quiet, curious and attractive (maybe even a little “stuck-up” as teens often do), but neither of them know of her true nature.

It’s quite possible India herself isn’t aware, but there’s something about Uncle Charlie that has her staring into the mirror differently. That again is where the title comes to play. Stoker isn’t just the family name, but it’s what the characters do to each other. Speaking of characters, if the three main Stoker family members were cast with any other actors this film would’ve been unintentionally laughable, instead of the unsettling perversity it exudes. Much of Miller’s dialogue demands a certain delivery with specific timing that Wasikowska, Goode and Kidman are game for. If they weren’t in tune though, often relying on expressive glares and feigned smiles, the results could’ve been woeful.

 

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Wasikowska is easily one of the most intriguing young actresses working today. She became known to mainstream audiences after her work in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” but really caught my attention with her next two roles in “The Kids Are All Right” and “Jane Eyre”. A number of actresses were considered for the role of India, but it’s clear why Wasikowska nailed it. Her India offers more than the awkward Gothic teen loner that we’ve seen before, instead she combines a pain and longing with an unhinged weirdness, free of pretension. The talented actress can pull off alluring and frightening in a very natural and confident way.

Kidman is best when she is on-screen with Wasikowska. The two Australian actresses compliment each other well. Apart from their scenes, the role of Evelyn feels undefined and finds Kidman playing it up a bit too much in certain scenes. This may be where Miller’s script handicaps the actors by failing to provide them, especially Kidman, with a realistic character. We get that Evelyn had a distant relationship with her husband and an estranged one with India, but there’s not even a hint as to how she came to be the insecure, cold and seemingly clueless woman she is. Although Kidman is good here, there isn’t a certain familiarity in the role, somewhat akin to her disturbed mothers in “The Hours” and “Rabbit Hole”.

Uncle Charlie is the pivotal role here though, one who ruffles the Stoker woman in two very different ways. Goode combines an appropriate amount of charm and creepiness to the part. Goode is another actor I’ve admired since discovering him in “The Lookout”, where he stood out just as he did in “A Single Man” and “Watchmen”. As Charlie, Goode has an unnerving  presence with an odd disposition (despite his immaculate appearance) which keeps the viewer vigilant as to the character’s next move. At times, he becomes a bit of a clichéd antagonist, but some of that is implied and falls on Miller’s screenplay.

This being my very first Park Chan-wook film, I found myself thoroughly impressed and captivated by his visual direction and meticulous storytelling. He and cinematographer Ching-hoon Chung have an uncanny artistic synchronicity that is nothing short of stunning. It feels like each frame in “Stoker” is worthy of hi-res meditation. I look forward to going back and catching up with the director’s Vengeance trilogy (of which “Oldboy” is a indirectly a part of) with the hope that those films will be equally hypnotic.

Others who had seen “Stoker” advised me to “pay close attention” and “look for connections”, but I was also aware of the film’s mixed reception at Sundance. Maybe that says something about how American audiences have become used to having everything spelled out. I’m sure upon second viewing I would pick up a few things, but I don’t feel like I missed out on anything during my initial viewing. Regardless, my curiosity and anticipation for the film was due to the three main actors, the director and the perceivable tone I picked up from the trailer. “Stoker” is thankfully not a typical Hollywood movie for many reasons – one being that  it allows you figure to things out for yourself (for the most part). It is definitely for a very specific audience though, an audience that we will be quite rewarded.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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