Stoker (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Stoker (2013)

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A challenger approachesAndrew LIKE BannerA superficial description of the events of Stoker might make it sound like yet another one of the seemingly endless supply of vampire media that's still being produced.  After all, it wasn't that long ago that we finished up a lengthy film series that was partly about a vampire having a child.  Worse still, a quick dig into director Park Chan-wook's filmography shows that his last feature-length film was Thirst, another movie about vampires.  All the elements are in play for a respected foreign director to make a crass American cash grab and call it a day.

That did not happen here.  Chan-wook, despite working in territory he's recently commented on, transported his talent for visceral, direct imagery in the presence of intense psychological conflict quite well.  This isn't to say that Stoker is a great film but rather a very good one that suggests if Chan-wook produces a script for English actors that he'll do just fine.

Despite the horror that lies at the center of Stoker the events of the plot move at a surprisingly brisk pace.  Like other thrillers there are surprises to be had, so the skeleton of the plot will have to do for now.  Richard (Dermot Mulroney), the patriarch of the Stoker family, dies in a car accident on his daughter India's (Mia Wasikowska) eighteenth birthday.  She's left behind with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who regards India as an annoying rash and India returning those feelings much the same.

The symbolism of wine as a transformational catalyst is a broad but extremely well played on between

The symbolism of wine as a transformational catalyst is a broad but extremely well played on between Wasikowska and Goode.

At the funeral a man stares at India from the distance.  He is Charlie (Matthew Goode), Richard's estranged brother.  Charlie integrates himself into the wake, then the home by tending to Evelyn's needs, and hovers around India.  She is wary, but intrigued, at Charlie's behavior.  Then other family members show up, disappear, reappear, and circle the lonely house and its confused daughter, all while Charlie's unblinking gaze on India becomes mutual and they learn the most surprising things about each other.

What India learns, both about Charlie and herself, must remain a mystery in these paragraphs but is the crux of Stoker.  The film is obviously about her transformation into adulthood, but is less about the blossoming flower that it seems every woman is destined to become, but something of India's own creation.  India has her hand in the family disease, which we gradually learn more of, but is by no means a passive creation of her environment.  One of the things I love about the story is how Charlie is the male gaze of horror given flesh but the world is through India's eyes.  Her lust and hunger are given voice and room to breathe, most notably in a shared passion around a piano and how she fights against being a victim in surprising and violent ways.

Wasikowska continues to be an excellent pick for these sort of transformative, ethereal roles.  She gives weight to the flighty Victorian darkness that could have unmoored her character into comedy, and is part of why the end is so effectively chilly.  Kidman has more questionable results.  In the past, she has had a tendency to play too far into a wide eyed cartoon, skirting the line well in films like The Paperboy but, aside from the one time she let's the twittering socialite facade leave, distracts from the creepy scenery a bit too much.  Goode, however, makes a lean sparring partner for Wasikowska.  He speaks deliberately, stares a bit too hungrily, and let's the silence between his sentences linger just long enough.  It is a beautiful monster he creates, letting his hungers speak for themselves.

Even though he's more subdued than normal, Chan-wook still has fun going full-throttle during the more melodramatic moments.

Even though he's more subdued than normal, Chan-wook still has fun going full-throttle during the more melodramatic moments.

Chan-wook employed a dutiful level of restraint here playing somewhat against his usual over-the-top violence.  He does so by maintaining some of his nightmare imagery, like the troubling destination of a spider, and mixing it with traditional vampire lore and imbuing it with the history of American horror.  The home is like the Overlook Hotel, all at once impossible with its blood-red organic bedrooms, impossibly white bathrooms, and cavernous basements.  He even infuses the characters with some of that history, Wasikowska looking at times like Carrie at the prom, and Goode like the patiently waiting Hannibal Lecter.  Then there are those slender necks, always present either in an inviting or guarded fashion during each turn of the plot, with the threat of blood just moments away.

Stoker works, but only when Chan-wook finally gets the pieces in place.  His previous films put the very souls of his characters up front as the stakes upfront.  This gets to that point eventually, but the first thirty minutes or so is too much misdirection and place setting that only occasionally produces great images.  This makes the case for the hour-long film, as Stoker had me in its clutches for just that long and other bits could have been sacrificed to make it leaner.

Even with those flaws, I hope his style and morbid humor gain a broader following here in America.  After all the dubstep-fueled trailers that preceded the film it's good to know that someone can still make films that play to the shadows instead of the eardrums.

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Tail - StokerStoker (2013)

Directed by Park Chan-wook.
Screenplay written by Wentworth Miller.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman.

Posted by Andrew

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