Talking Movies

February 28, 2013

Stoker

Stoker-2013-poster-1

Oldboy director Park Chan-wook makes his American debut with a suitably twisted  tale of an alienated teenage girl’s growing suspicion of the motives of her  newly discovered relative, Uncle Charlie.

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a bright but withdrawn teenager whose  beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) dies on her 18th birthday. However,  his death is immediately followed by the arrival of his brother Charlie (Matthew  Goode); whose existence comes as a complete surprise to India. Her mother Evelyn  (Nicole Kidman) explains that Charlie has spent the past 20 years travelling the  globe on geological surveys and was estranged from his brother Richard. Charlie  decides to stay on at the Stoker Mansion and while Evelyn throws herself at him,  India maintains an aloof distance. But the mysterious disappearance of their  housekeeper Mrs McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) followed by a visit from her  grand-aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), who warns India to be wary of Charlie,  arouses her suspicions about Charlie’s shadowy past. She soon has concerns about  his present intentions as they start bonding…

Stoker looks and sounds amazing. The  colours are rich, and Park does amazing things with ambient sound; consistently  pushed to the foreground to incredibly unsettling effect giving the film a  sustained intensity of unease. One stunning moment in which the camera circles a  character, following a belt being deafeningly pulled off, creates an effect akin  to hearing the tell-tale warning before a rattlesnake strike. Park doesn’t hold  back on the Hitchcockian flourishes; the camera swoops away and pushes in  dramatically, observes characters eavesdropping, generates suspense from the  mere framing of innocuous dialogue scenes, and even features a memorably  diabolic shower scene. Park teases the audience magnificently, holding on back  on information at key points, and then complicating our interpretation of  certain images with additional back-story. Even performing a simple piano duet  written by Philip Glass becomes a deliriously transgressive experience.

But there’s a flipside… Wentworth Miller’s original screenplay lifts a  number of elements from Hitchcock’s 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt, but doesn’t pilfer such  crucial traits as a sympathetic protagonist, likeable antagonist, believable  characters, or sustained ambiguity. I’m not sure a film set in Connecticut can  really claim to be part of the Southern Gothic literary tradition as it’s been  positioned, and in any case this is more Shadow  of a Doubt by way of Dexter than  Flannery O’Connor. And this isn’t just me seeing Dexter everywhere; as probably the most  original show of the last decade it’s unsurprising that ideas from it are  percolating. But Dexter DNA doesn’t  include ciphers masquerading as people. Goode’s unblinking Charlie is positively  reptilian, Wasikowska’s India is totally deadened, and Kidman’s Evelyn a mere  melodramatic type. The result is an anti-Hitchcockian emotional detachment.

Miller’s script rocked the Black List in 2010 but it’s the weakest link in  Park’s accomplished film, which lacks his Korean movies’ visceral punch.

3/5

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