| The Red Right Hand
I'm writing this under the influence of flu, so if I ramble a bit, you'll have to forgive me. Last month I reviewed Korean director, Ji-woon Kim's first English language film, The Last Stand and I was horribly disappointed. Stoker is Chan-wook Park's first foray into English language flicks and unlike Kim, he sticks to familiar ground with this dark, edgy, haunting thriller, penned by actor Wentworth Miller.
The movie opens with the funeral for eighteen year old India Stoker's [Wasikowska] father. Whether due to the grieving process or simply as an eccentricity in her personality, the young woman runs through fields and streams, climbs trees and mingles with the guests with an antisocial brashness. As she experiences the world on what also turns out to be her birthday, she is introduced to an uncle she didn't know existed. Uncle Charlie [Goode] is such a mystery that even India's mother, Evelyn [Kidman], was unaware of his existence. The first half of the film shows Charlie staying with the family and subtly seducing Evelyn with his youth and charm, all the while harbouring some hidden purpose. The second half twists and turns dramatically with several distinct yet plausible revelations (I realise 'plausible' is an odd word to use but in contemporary thrillers sometimes it's an immense compliment) which reveal several family secrets, genetic curiosities and an overarching surreptitious grooming.
Due to the narrative and nature of the film, the entire thing rides on the performances delivered by a small, tightknit cast. Mia Wasikowska has been lavished with praise continually since her performance in The Kids Are Alright but she's never really bowled me over in the same way. Up until now, of course. Stoker (or specifically, India) affords Wasikowska the opportunity to play her typecast shy quirks but under all that show an immensely powerful yet restrained defiance. Then we have the cool, calculating and despicably enigmatic Matthew Goode, who often finds himself in mediocre productions but always gives fantastic performances, giving us a glimpse of extreme control in the first half and uncoordinated emotional flailing in the second. Which leaves us with Nicole Kidman. Kidman is actually perfect for this role and of an age and status that she should opt to play this kind of character but personally, I was completely jarred by the amount of plastic surgery she has undertaken (something that killed her performance in Australia, if you ask me). In theory, you could argue this only strengthens and fleshes out the character, as someone who does not feel as young, beautiful or loved as she did in her prime but instead I felt it restricted the - for lack of a better word - amount of acting that she could deliver. Her eyes were amazing; it's just a pity the rest of her face just wasn't giving us the same.
Surprisingly, Stoker isn't nearly as graphic as Park's previous work. This isn't necessarily a detrimental point, merely an observation of refrainment. But having enjoyed everything Park has put out, it reminded me of I Am A Cyborg in the way it feels like the whole film is holding back just a tad. Having said that, it adds a healthy dose of realism to a rather surreal character study. Much like Park's direction, Mansell's score also feels like it's holding back slightly. I don't want to say safe because there's very little about this film that could be classified thusly but certainly tamer than say something like The Black Swan. Ultimately, this is a filmmaker's film. No doubt it will underperform at the box office and critics will be moderately impressed but for aspiring filmmakers and industry professionals, it's a keenly crafted indulgent narrative, which shows off the subtle power and prowess of Chan-wook Park and his long term collaborative DP, Chung-hoon Chung.
With its slow pacing and intriguing gothic characters, Stoker is atypical of good psychological thrillers, the like of which has been absent from cinema for quite some time; flawed and a little lethargic but certainly reminiscent of classic cinema. I appreciate this is going to sound much more grandiose a compliment than the film may or may not deserve but it feels a bit like a reincarnated successor to Shadow Of A Doubt. As this is my favourite Hitchcock film, I don't say that lightly but there's something distinctly tributary about this script, falling at its feet and paying homage to this master of cinema. Unfortunately, like all homages, it pales in comparison and serves as a reminder that someone else already did this to a much higher standard.
1st March 2013
The Scene To Look Out For:
Without trying to spoil anything, Charlie's backstory is a nicely kept secret that reveals itself in such a simple yet horrific manner that instantly strikes a chord with the audience. The camera work is exceptional, the score rises perfectly and the performances are sublime for this beautifully horrid scenario. Yes, yes, I appreciate that's a very vague description and a loose critique but I'm trying to describe the entire crux and turning point of the movie here! Just watch it and you'll know what I'm talking about - the whole sand angels thing. Yeah, that.
There are only a handful of key characters and as stated above, each performance offers something integral to not only the story but also the other leads. The constantly revolving triangle of oddity expressed between them is genuinely fascinating. I could say that the weaker element is Kidman but in honesty, I feel her character is supposed to be the unknowing weaker element but it unfortunately ensures she sinks a little further backstage than the other two. As Charlie and India manipulate those they interact with, it's quite obvious their performances are the most prevalent but choosing between them is too much of a task.
"Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be"
In A Few Words:
"A dark probing look into the twisted intricacies of a mentally unstable family but a little too laboured in its pacing and tame in its reveal to achieve the heights it strives for"