Monday, March 18, 2013

Movie Review: Stoker

Directed by: Chan-wook Park.
Written by: Wentworth Miller.
Starring: Mia Wasikowska (India Stoker), Nicole Kidman (Evelyn Stoker), Matthew Goode (Charles Stoker), Dermot Mulroney (Richard Stoker), Phyllis Somerville (Mrs. McGarrick), Harmony Korine (Mr. Feldman), Lucas Till (Pitts), Alden Ehrenreich (Whip), Jacki Weaver (Gwendolyn Stoker), Ralph Brown (Sheriff).

Korean director Chan-wook Park has made a name for himself by directing ultra-violent movies in his home country. Yet as violent as his films are, they are also extremely well made, and for the most part intelligent. Oldboy (2003) is inarguably his masterpiece so far – a revenge film/melodrama that Quentin Tarantino obviously admired - the jury he headed at Cannes gave it the Grand Prize of Jury, essentially second place, which was interesting because while Cannes has no shied away from extreme Asian cinema, they have shied away from giving it prizes. Like many foreign filmmakers who find a following in North America, Park decided to come to Hollywood. His Hollywood debut is Stoker, a nasty, wonderfully directed and acted Hitchcock homage. While Stoker may not be as good as the Master’s best films – or Park’s own best films for that matter – it is still an early year highlight.

Mia Wasikowska stars as India Stoker, a sullen, depressed, extremely intelligent teenage girl, whose beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a car accident on her 18th birthday. Her mother Eve (Nicole Kidman) doesn’t seem all that broken up by her husband’s death. And then on the day of his funeral her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up, and moves right into their house, and has eyes for his sister-in-law, who seems more than game. What makes this even stranger is that she didn’t even know she had an Uncle Charlie – but the longtime family housekeeper (Phyllis Sommerville) does know him – and she quickly vanishes. A relative (Jacki Weaver) will also show up one night, wanting to talk to Eve about Charlie, but she leaves the house after dinner, and India never sees her again either.

It is with mounting dread that we watch the movie, and we fear for this sullen, but innocent young girl who is at the mercy of a monstrous mother, and perhaps an even more monstrous Uncle (and if you’ve seen Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, you know what we’re dealing with in Uncle Charlie). Wasikowska is great in her role here – seemingly still, but she is constantly watching and never misses anything. She is better in roles like this – or as the title character in Jane Eyre – than in more “heroic” roles like Burton’s Alice in Wonderful. Her beautiful, seemingly innocent face is capable of telling us so much, so when the movie starts twisting, and the plot twists become more and more ridiculous, Wasikowska keeps the film grounded and believable. We may not believe what is going on around her, but Wasikowska makes us believe in how India responds to it.

Kidman is excellent as well, even if Eve is a tad one-dimensional – she is the monster of a mother, who doesn’t really love her daughter, as much as she feels jealous of her – jealous that her late husband spent more time with India than with her. And when Charlie comes in, and outwardly prefers Eve to India, she is so blinded by her own pride, that she doesn’t see what is happening right in front of her eyes – that Charlie has no real interest in her. He only has eyes for India. Matthew Goode is good as Charlie, a charming mask, an easy laugh and all charm. He is the mystery at the center of the film. Where did he come from? Why did he come back? Given the name of the movie, Park’s last film Thirst, and given that Charlie always leaves his plate untouched, you’d be forgiven in thinking that he is perhaps a vampire. Goode gamely plays along, not offering too many clues as to what his secrets might be.

Perhaps more of a star than any of the cast members is Park and his direction. This is a wonderfully directed movie, with excellent, creepy sound design, and a camera that looks unblinkingly at the horror on screen. Some will inarguably say that the film’s style is over the top and trumps the subject, but Park’s style perfectly matches the over the top subject matter. The violence in the film is strong, bloody and potent – and yet still cannot hold a candle to what Park has put on screen in the past – because it doesn’t need to.

Of course, as with most movies of its sort, Stoker’s weakest moments are when the secrets the film has worked so hard to conceal come pouring out – this time they are both horrific and disturbing, and yet still kind of bland and predictable. Yet what Park is able to do is twist individual moments brilliantly – making us think one thing, only to have his camera pull back and reveal an entirely different meaning (the scene in the shower is the most brilliant example of this). The film begins and ends at the same spot, and yet what was beautiful at first, has now become horrific when we understand the meaning. With Stoker, Park succeeds wonderfully in doing what Hitchcock loved to do – playing the audience like a piano.

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