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Monday, March 25, 2013

Review: Stoker (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman

There’s something very wrong in the Stoker house. When people aren’t disappearing, they’re appearing suddenly, after decades’ absence, and casting a sinister pall over everything. Stoker, South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English language debut, is a brutally effective and atmospheric thriller of almost immaculate execution. Almost. It flies off the rails a little bit in its third act, but at least it looks great while it’s doing it, and manages to pull things back on track in time for the finale. If nothing else, Stoker is a very welcome reprieve from the weak “first quarter” selections at theaters lately.

Stoker begins with a birthday and a death, as India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) turns 18 and her beloved father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), is killed in a car accident. After the funeral India is surprised when her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), introduces her to her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whose existence comes as a complete surprise to her. Evelyn invites Charlie to stay on at the house and the two begin to grow increasingly close, a fact which creates deeper fissures in the already fragile relationship between Evelyn and India. Charlie also begins trying to ingratiate himself with a hostile and resistant India, finally beginning to succeed when... well, if you have any intention of seeing the movie, I suggest not reading the rest of the review. Go into this one as cold as possible and just let it take you away.

While he was alive, Richard and India often went hunting, which India comes to realize they did less because he enjoyed it and more because he felt it was necessary, explaining to her that “sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.” As her relationship with Charlie progresses, she comes to understand what her father meant, as an act of violence opens the floodgates and sets her on a deadly path as Charlie’s apprentice in murder. Boundaries become increasingly blurred and the relationship between India and Charlie takes on a distinctly sexual overtone, leaving Evelyn out in the cold and less and less willing to overlook the holes in Charlie’s story and the questions that remain about Richard’s death.

Written by Wentworth Miller (best known as an actor for the TV series Prison Break), Stoker is a simple story that essentially lays all its cards on the table within its first 30 minutes. It works because Park is such a master at both building and sustaining tension, and at creating visuals that are so intriguing that you’re kept rapt and entertained even if the narrative is telegraphing its twists. Here, Park takes a story steeped in gothic darkness and renders it with a vibrant color motif, using yellows and reds, in particular, to signal India’s character progression. Yellow, used for the bows on her birthday gifts (amongst other things), represents her physical maturation; red represents her growing capacity for violence. The two colors are mixed in at least three key instances (probably more, but I’d have to see the film again before being able to catalogue any others) – amongst Richard’s taxidermied trophies of India’s hunting kills is a yellow egg spotted with red; the ice cream containers that India takes down to the cellar, and which bring her face-to-face with death, are yellow-striped and red-striped; and when India first draws human blood she does it using a yellow pencil – to demonstrate India’s growing maturity, and the film also uses shoes as a more overt motif to chart that progress.

The film is at its best when Park is allowed to work his visual magic, constructing interestingly framed and often fiercely beautiful shots. My favourite shot of the film is when India and her potential suitor, Whip (Alden Ehrenreich), go to a park and she speaks to him while standing on (and going round) a roundabout – which brings me to one of the things I also really liked about the screenplay, which is that it completely subverts expectations with respect to the Whip character, who is set up as a nice boy/white knight character of the type that, in a different film, would save India and reclaim her for society, and turns out to be something very different instead. Although Stoker certainly has some weaknesses on the script level, that is definitely not one of them.

As I said at the top, Stoker does go a little off the rails towards the end, crossing over to the wrong side of over the top, but it rights its course in time to deliver a savagely satisfying finale. Despite its flaws, Stoker is definitely one of 2013’s must sees.

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