Monday, March 18, 2013

STOKER Is Dark, Disturbing, Creepy, and Unforgettable

STOKER Review:

- Over the years, I'd heard whispers about an already-legendary Korean film called OLDBOY. Circa 2006, I'd seen it referenced in many articles, heard it spoken about reverently by film geeks and cinephiles. Oldboy was the movie you had to see if you considered yourself a film fan, and director Chan Wook-Park was the next big thing in badass filmmaking. So one day, I drove over to Amoeba in Hollywood on the hunt for the film. I purchased the DVD (Amoeba has everything), and eagerly brought it home. I watched OLDBOY, and instantly, I got what the hype was all about. This was the dawn of a new era of Asian extreme cinema. Now, several years later, comes STOKER. Stoker is Park's first American-made film, following an already legendary career in the Korean film world. Certainly, there was reason to be cautious about this one - would Park's unique sensibility - and his tendency towards extreme, psychological, intense filmmaking - get lost in translation? As it turns out, the answer is - hell no. Stoker is right up there with the most badass films that Park has yet made. It's visually stunning, disturbing, creepy, and just downright absorbing. Like all of Park's films, this one buries into your brain, gets you thinking, gets you talking.

STOKER is a story of innocence lost. Our main character is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a sullen, brooding teenage girl - only child to a wealthy family - who is an outcast at school, and who has a troubled relationship with her Stepford-esque mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). India's world is thrown into further tailspin when her father Richard (Durmot Mulroney) is killed in a car accident. While India's relationship with her mother was frosty, she spent a lot of time with her father - he even made her his unlikely hunting companion on many occasions. Things take another strange turn when India's long-absent uncle, Charles (Matthew Goode) comes in for his brother's funeral. Charles - who explains away his scarcity by claiming to be a world traveler, decides to stay with India and her mother, in their stately home, for an extended period.

I hesitate to say much about the plot, because this is a narrative that slowly and hypnotically unfolds and reveals itself, and part of the joy here is letting the various twists and turns shock and surprise you. Suffice it to say, uncle Charles is not exactly what he seems. He's a rather dark, twisted sort of person. And he's all too eager to take the lonely, tormented India under his wing - to see if his suspicion is correct, that she too shares some of his darker proclivities.

Crazily enough, Stoker's got a screenplay written by none other than former Prison Break TV series star, Wentworth Miller. And - who knew? - the man can write. The more I thought about it, the more impressed I was with the screenplay's many layers, and with its thematic depth. There is a dreamlike/nightmarish quality to the storytelling that sees the narrative, at times, unfold in a nonlinear fashion. We also alternate between reality and the characters' psyches, at times having to parse out what's actually happening, versus what a character is imagining. It could have been clumsy, but it's all handled pretty elegantly. There's also a real sharpness to the dialogue - it's all delivered in a surreal, left-of-center manner - this is very stylized stuff - but it's memorable, striking, and effective.

And of course, the strong, twisty script is augmented immeasurably by Chan Wook-Park's fantastic direction. The guy does mood and atmosphere like few others, and here he creates gothic imagery that pops. He also adds to the film's haunting quality with a number of head-spinning shots and sequences that help to accentuate the film's feeling of danger, disorientation, and steadily-growing intensity. The film is nothing if not intense - both on a plot level (where *had* George been all of those years?), and on a psychological one. Park never shies away from using the story as a psycho-sexual coming-of-age allegory. George is the catalyst that jump-starts sullen-but-innocent India into her own twisted sort of awakening - one that mixes sex, violence, rebellion, and utter disillusion with the world around you. India begins realizing how dark and dangerous the world is - how filled with malice the people in her life (her mother, her classmates) really are - and so she decides to turn the tables, and become even worse, even darker.

Mia Wasikowska is terrific as India Stoker. She pulls off India's girlish innocence, but is just as believable (and intensely creepy) when her dormant darkness is unleashed. I had similar thoughts after her noteworthy turn in The Kids Are All Right, but this movie cemented it - Wasikowska is truly a young actress to watch. This is an amazing performance. Matthew Goode is also really great as creepy uncle Charles. It's almost funny - I always thought he was perhaps miscast in Watchmen ... but after seeing him in Stoker, I'm almost curious to see what he could do as Ozymandias now that he's got more experience under his belt. I say that because in Stoker, Goode is *very* Ozymandias-like. He's got "the voice" down pat - a chilling, cold, upper-crust dialect that makes his cool - almost snobby - exterior fairly chilling. He's smooth to the point of creepy, cool to the point of threatening. Definitely some Patrick Bateman in their as well. As for Nicole Kidman, I've always liked her when she's in these sorts of off-kilter, left-of-center, semi-creepy roles (To Die For, anyone?). And so it's no surprise that she really nails the part of Evelyn - a desperate housewife with some serious issues.

Stoker takes a little while to get going, but it really weaves a web as it goes that you can't help but get sucked into. From a narrative perspective, it all comes together fairly straightforwardly in the end - despite some of the storytelling tricks used by Miller and Park. But, like I said, there's a lot of depth here - symbolism, subtext, and some open-ended psychological questions that game me a lot to chew on once the film was over. I guarantee - there are certain sequences in the film - a piano duet scene, a certain shower scene - that will leave you breathless.

It's nice to know that, even in his first American film - an American Gothic with an Asian Extreme spin - the great Chan Wook-Park has not gone soft in the least. This is as extreme, as dark, as deep, and as badass as just about any movie he's yet made.

My Grade: A-

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