Sunday, March 3, 2013

Review: "Stoker"

Director: Chan-wook Park
Runtime: 98 minutes

If Jee-woon Kim's The Last Stand was an example of a foreign director succumbing to the Hollywood machine, then consider Chan-wook Park's Stoker a delightfully mad case wherein a director smoothly transplants his style to an English-language feature. The South Korean auteur, best known for his wince-inducing Vengeance Trilogy (specifically Oldboy) reportedly didn't speak much English on the film's set. In some cases, it shows, as the dialogue from Wentworth Miller's script can sometimes feel like a first draft. Yet where Mr. Park can't quite overcome the wobbly dialogue, he compensates by creating some exquisite visual story-telling. Stoker's script may be problematic in certain areas, and it doesn't quite get to the same level of humanity of some of Park's earlier films. At the same time, this is perhaps the director's best executed film in terms of story pacing and (brilliantly over-the-top) atmosphere. 

As much as Stoker has been marketed as a near-horror film, it actually stakes out much more interesting territory in which to play its wicked games. Said territory is that of a psycho-sexual thriller. Stoker's set-up is efficient and introduces the major players, before segueing into a beautifully amorphous narrative of sexual awakening, manifested in flashes of dark violence. On her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) learns that her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) has died in a car crash. On the day of Richard's funeral, India's mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) slips into the Stoker family, and quickly charms India's desperate housewife of a mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). From there on, the film is less interested in simple answers or entirely believable actions as it is in the way Charlie upsets the recently traumatized Stoker household.

For Kidman's Evie, Charlie represents a romantic interest in light of her husband's passing. For India, Charlie is a mysterious stranger determined to draw her out of her sullen state of unsexed adolescence. In the film's most arresting sequence, Charlie joins India at the piano for a duet, and the escalating music, coupled with the silent body movements (a carefully placed hand, an ankle twisted in anxiety) make it clear that Park's gifts as a director have lost nothing in the big leap from Asia to North America. The film is heavily stylized, perhaps more than any of the director's previous work. The camera movements, which often swoop over to indicate a character's point of view, certainly aren't aiming for subtlety, nor is the sound design or Clint Mansell's score. For as deeply as emotions (and secrets) remain opaque, the film charges ahead full throttle on the aesthetic front. One could argue that this choice nearly smothers whatever substance there is, but the aesthetics are consistent from the start. You'll likely either find them enthralling or hugely off-putting. 

Yet even as Stoker throws its surface in the audience's face, there remains a heart - albeit a very chilly one - underneath that surface. The in-your-face sights and sounds - coupled with some really beautiful editing - are beautifully in-sync with Wasikowska's slowly awakening India. The character remains rather stoic for the most part, yet the flashy style creates a wonderful fever-dream atmosphere that perfectly taps into the film's sinister vision of burgeoning female sexuality. Yet as stone-faced as India remains, Wasikowska never lets the role trap her. In fact, Stoker is perhaps the best use of the actress' wan features and reserved persona to date. There are little touches of perverse enjoyment and sardonic wit that permeate the performance, and Park gives them room to breathe, even amidst the heavy style. 

The adults in India's world aren't slouches either. Kidman, though not given too much to do throughout, handles her flighty, flustered trophy wife role with aplomb. Many of her scenes simply require her for sheer star power and presence, but when the actress finally gets the chance to deliver, she knocks it out of the park in a spectacularly concise monologue.  And Goode, who really ought to be a bigger star (at least on the indie level) by now, is a perfectly unsettling stranger. The actor's angular features (his face and eyes often carry a vaguely reptilian look), and silky, steady voice create an interesting puzzle of a man who, to be frank, really doesn't have much in the way of development across the film. But the film's ultimately Wasikowska's (and also Park's), and she carries it on her slender frame with an effortlessness that has eluded many of her previous performances. 

Where Stoker runs into some level of trouble is in its third act. Now, from a purely narrative standpoint, I'll admit that I enjoyed it, even if it was somewhat on the banal side. It's a classic case of a tired trope that works due to the specifics and the execution. Yet one key revelation between acts two and three has the unfortunate potential of making earlier scenes not add up, or at least become less convincing. Mr. Park seems more concerned with the three-way relationship in the Stoker house more than anything, which requires the audience to suspend our disbelief more than we might expect. In this sense, Stoker can easily be compared to the work of Hitchcock, whose films often contained plot elements that seemed flimsy only after one left the darkness of the theater. The same is certainly the case here. How much you enjoy Stoker, during or after the film, may very well depend on how much you think the execution smooths out the screenplay. There's a reason the film has proven divisive on multiple levels. 

Yet even as I found quibbles with the narrative's twist and the way I was forced to reconsider early scenes, I still found myself firmly under Park's spell. More than any of the director's other films, which have a tendency to sag in the middle, Stoker moves with a sinister elegance all the way through its somewhat predictable conclusion. The effective performances and truly exquisite level of craftsmanship created a deliciously dark experience that often left me mesmerized and/or violently clutching my arm rests. No matter what I can think of about Stoker's plot or its occasionally stiff dialogue, I can't deny that the film displays Park's directorial powers at their absolute height in more than one instance. Flaws and all, Stoker sent a surge through my body that has left me unable to get the film out of my head. Call the film style-over-substance if you want, but it's one hell of a style. 

Grade: B/B+


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