Equal parts Asian horror, surrealist French cinema and twisted indie drama, Stoker is a film full of understated performances, bizarre actions and visual oddities.
It should come as no surprise that Stoker is, boiled down to its essentials, arty trash. Or perhaps it would be better to call it trashy art. Chan-wook Park, the Korean director making his stateside debut, is most famous for his Vengeance Trilogy, of which Oldboy, a tale of a man seemingly abducted at random off the street one night and held prisoner in a room for years (currently on the remake block with Spike Lee of all people) is the best known part. There are similar building blocks here in the darkness, menace and highly messed up family relationships that permeate, though the story and tone are far different.
When India’s father, Richard, dies on her birthday, she begins to descend down a dark path that is egged on by her enigmatic and handsome uncle Charlie. An uncle she didn’t even know she had until her father’s funeral. Matthew Goode, who was not quite right in Watchmen as Ozymandias, nails the creepy, sleazy Charlie, spending most of the run time with a bemused smirk on his face, choosing the right moments to insert himself into India’s life, much as she may attempt to push him away. Like the family’s eponymous name, he fans flames that smolder inside her, attempting to bring her to a blaze. Her mother (Nicole Kidman) was already falling apart, coinciding with the crumbling foundation of her marriage, and she begins an escalation in selfishness and hedonism that centers around her resentment of India’s closeness to her father instead of being the daughter she wanted. Bette Davis on Prozac would be an apt comparison. She manages to pack a ton of malice into her impressive performance, even more so because she does a great job of poorly trying to hide it for much of the picture. She spanks the tawdriness of her Academy-bait performance in To Die For and sends it to the corner.
Without going into the kind of detail that would ruin the surprises of the movie (there is no real twist, but the story spills forward in fits and starts), it fits well into Park’s filmography that centers on broken people with broken motivations and contains many of his trademark shocking moments that will leave you at least uncomfortable and at most disturbed. And it’s written by that guy from Prison Break. Who knew?
Mia Wasikowska, whose Victorian looks no doubt helped her land the lead role in Tim Burton’s megablockbuster sack of crap, Alice in Wonderland, brings a much deeper sense of personality as India Stoker. She displays more in the forever folded-armed character’s twitches and glances than in whole acts from Burton’s film.
Visually, the film is almost a cinematic haiku. Images from previous scenes repeat later in the movie (sometimes multiple times), flickering across the screen for moments, seeking to connect the seemingly unconnected and fold the film in on itself. In some cases, one image transitions into another through clever visual effects and in still others, scenes based on a visual idea or metaphor will fold within longer scenes with almost no sense of continuity. The movie in itself has a very loose interpretation of time, sometimes using it to advance the story, sometimes flashing back almost at random. For the most part, the confusion adds to the tone and makes the jumbled, frightening changes in India seem to jump directly off the screen in a stream of consciousness. However, it is also to the film’s slight detriment in a way and is used to the point of ultimately making the film tough to digest. Park’s attempts to elevate the material get in the way of it succeeding in its primary needs as a narrative. (See Ang Lee’s The Hulk for an infinitely worse example of this problem of overpowering ambition mixed with Eastern film styles.) Fortunately for Stoker, it does not go to that extreme and remains effective.
(Three damns out of five)