Monday, March 25, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: STOKER Would Make Sir Alfred Hitchcock Proud (And Maybe Even Blush)

The best thrillers (or horror movies. Debate semantics in the comments) often explore the corners of human life we'd rather leave alone. That's usually why they are so important for artists to delve into: we need to swim in sin and ugliness for a while so we are reminded that such a world isn't too far removed from our own. Stoker plumbs these depths with masterful finesse and ends up being one of the best of its ilk. Taut, tawdry and handled with classical expertise, this is a film that demands discussion and appreciation.

After the sudden death of her father, young India (wraith-like beauty Mia Wasikowska) and her mother (Nicole Kidman in subdued vamp mode) welcome India's uncle Charlie (a devilishly cherubic Matthew Goode) into their home. Very soon, India begins to suspect that her father's brother may have some very disturbing secrets lying underneath his sweet demeanor, and as the movie unfolds, their relationship dives into a darkness that might be inescapable.

Director Chan-wook Park (making his American debut) is not slacking off in any arena. He crafts a sense of beautiful menace that is strung throughout the entire running time, building slowly and purposefully without sacrificing character or pacing. It's a feat that all suspenseful stories strive for, but most cannot fully attain. Stoker is in no danger of that, proving that well-constructed and slow-burning pictures don't need to let up on the tension and unease in order to put its players into place. I sincerely cannot wait to see what Chan-wook's next English outing will entail. This film has guaranteed my ticket for his following endeavor.

All three principal actors give performances that define the idea of "less is more." Understated acting choices make each facial expression tell more about the characters than pages of dialogue could ever attempt. In particular, Mia Wasikowska plays India with quiet, childlike malice. Both her and Matthew Goode take a measured approach to revealing more and more of the wickedness inside of them as the movie progresses.

And oh is Matthew Goode enticingly wicked. The character of Uncle Charlie (a perfectly on-the-nose reference to the Master of Suspense's Shadow of a Doubt) is disgustingly charming, wooing India's mother while simultaneously stalking after his niece with the grace of a shark. He even adapts the always welcome foreboding whistle (a la Fritz Lang's M) into his own brand of warm malevolence. The more the movie lets us know about Charlie, the more complex and interesting a villain he becomes, all the way up to his very last scene. It's a stunning achievement for Goode, and for screenwriter Wentworth Miller for piecing together a monster we can't turn away from.

But, at its core, Stoker is a dark and dirty coming-of-age story told from the viewpoint of India, and Mia Wasikowska anchors the movie with a role that is a blend of Wednesday Addams and Nabakov's titular Lolita. The journey of her becoming sexually aware is nowhere near typical or pleasant, but it feels skin-crawlingly easy to relate to. The discovery that forbidden and often appalling things can arouse you is one of the most invasive undertakings we experience as sexual creatures, and Stoker is talking about that very, very loudly. India experiences what has to be one of the most astoundingly horrific orgasms ever put in a widely released movie, and it's easily one of the best moments of the film. It's a moment that clearly blends together the shockingly similar concepts of sex and death, something Western audiences try to avoid at all costs.

In fact, the majority of the concepts in this picture are taboo areas that most major American filmmakers don't really want to examine: incest, the joy of murder, perverse sexual urges and how tragedy and evil can be what truly bonds a family together. Sometimes, this movie will be analyzing all of those concepts in a single scene! It's the best kind of transgressive filmmaking: thought-provoking but not simply there for shock value.

We're at a point in film where visual excellence is hard not to get right. Even some of the worst movies look good, so it becomes less about how a film "looks" and more about how it's composed. It should be noted that while Stoker does "look" gorgeous, it's the composition and staging of the frame that show the kind of professionalism at work. Chan-wook's frequent director of photography Chung-hoon Chung shapes each shot with impeccable precision, and editor Nicholas de Toth deserves any award you can bestow upon him. This is Oscar worthy work here.

Clint Mansell delivers another stellar score, proving that he's the go-to guy for this kind of intimate musical work (his score for The Fountain shatters any shred of manliness I pretend to have). It should also be mentioned that music plays an integral role within the movie's plot, as India and her mother both play piano. Mansell takes full advantage of this, and composes themes and feelings that permeate the entire mood of the picture. The scene where India and Charlie both play a piece together is another chillingly effective highlight of the film, and it shames me to say, is immensely erotic and sensual. Yeesh, I feel like I need to shower after that.

If there is one piece of the puzzle that is just a tiny bit crooked, it would be the mother played by Nicole Kidman. She's certainly not giving a bad performance (her silent contempt throughout the movie builds to a great monologue near the end that is drenched in bitter animosity), but it feels like we're one scene away from completely knowing her and relating to her. We learn that she's been cooped up in her home since marrying India's father (she does get a melancholy line about being able to speak fluent French in a house all by herself) and that would seem like enough to feel bad for her, but it just didn't sell me 100%. It's probably more to do with the relationship between India and Charlie being far more intriguing (and the real crux of the story), so it's certainly not that big or distracting of an issue.

Stoker is certainly not a movie for everyone. It'll probably turn away half of the people who see it. It goes to some of the ghastliest places you can think of, but if you relish a chance to stare into the abyss, this is a film that stares back at you and never averts its gaze.


  1. Sounds great, I still need to check this one out. If it ends up being half as good as Old Boy I am sure I will dig it. Love your blog background.

    1. Thanks for reading! And thanks for the background compliment!

      It's a more subtle piece than "Oldboy", but a lot of similar themes are at play. And it's certainly as transgressive and "no punches pulled" as "Oldboy." Definitely slower paced, but still juicy and dark.