Movie Review by L.L. Soares
Most people who read Cinema Knife Fight regularly will recognize the name Chan-wook Park. He is the Korean director of such highly regarded films as J.S.A.: JOINT SECURITY AREA (2000), the vampire movie THIRST (2009) and his renowned “Vengeance Trilogy”: SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002), OLDBOY (2003), and LADY VENGEANCE (2005). His new movie, STOKER, is something of a milestone, since it’s his first movie made in English. For someone known for his violent, uncompromising brand of cinema, the question that immediately springs to mind is, how much did he have to tone things down to work in America (and within the MPA’s rating system)? The answer is, not too much.
STOKER is kind of a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), with its story of a young girl and a visiting Uncle Charlie. Here, the girl’s name is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), and her father has just died in a car accident. She has a strained relationship with her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). And, just as they’re burying India’s father, dad’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) makes a surprise appearance and announces he is going to stay with the two women for a little visit. The thing is, Uncle Charlie is a dangerous man.
He’s also a man of mystery. He has traveled around the world and is eager to meet his niece, even though she had no clue he even existed. For some reason, India’s parents never told her about her uncle, and she finds this kind of odd, especially since Uncle Charlie is such a larger-than-life character. With his sunglasses, cool demeanor, and charismatic charm, Charlie is a breath of fresh air in India’s life, which has been reduced to just of her and her mother, who seems a bit “unbalanced.” Mom sleeps most of the day, drinks to excess and has mood swings. Charlie, in contrast, always seems completely in control and gives India all the attention she could want.
At first, things are strained between India and her uncle. She refuses to speak to him, gets angry when he shows up at school to give her rides home (she avoids him and takes the bus instead) and seems to regard him as an intruder. But over time, India warms to him. A very sexually charged duet on piano – a very intense scene – clinches the fact that they are destined to be co-conspirators of one kind or another. Although it’s not clear at first if he’s more interested in her mother or her.
By the time the bodies start piling up, we know Charlie for what he is, and slowly uncover his past and where he really was when he was supposedly traveling around the world. But the big question is, what is India? Is she a soul mate to Charlie, like the older man surely wants, or is she a strong-willed individual who will make the ultimate moral decisions on her own?
It doesn’t help that she feels completely isolated as the movie begins. It seems that her father, who she went on regular hunting trips with (there are taxidermied animals around the house—mostly birds that India killed), was her only friend and confidante. Her relationship with her mother is terrible. At school, she’s the “weird girl” who does well in academics, but is a complete outcast among the other kids. A group of boys who have targeted her are especially cruel. Constantly insulting her, making innuendos and basically harassing her, these boys seem more like predators than schoolmates. In one jolting scene, a school bully actually tries to punch her when she refuses to be cowed and insults him back, but his fist meets the sharp end of a pencil instead of his intended target. It seems as if India isn’t safe at school, and yet, she knows how to keep enemies at bay and survive.
When she meets a boy who defended her at school in a parking lot (an action that is in direct reaction to seeing her mother and Charlie sharing an intimate moment), even this degenerates.
So India is more than ready for someone like Charlie to step into her life and offer a way out. A different way. And while it seems enticing at first, she is bound to have reservations when she has to make real life and death decisions.
While not as physically violent as the Korean films that made Chan-wook Park’s reputation, STOKER seethes with an internal violence that colors most of what we see. Speaking of which, the cinematography by Park veteran Chung-hoon Chung is pretty remarkable here. There are some strong images, like children making angels in the sand (or on their beds); a spider crawling up a nyloned leg; flowers sprayed with blood (an image that reminded me of something similar in Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED, a very different kind of movie); an overhead light in a basement rocking back and forth; that all add another layer to the proceedings.
The script here is by Wentworth Miller, who is also an actor (you may remember him as Michael Scofield, one of the leads on PRISON BREAK, 2005 – 2009), and it’s a good one. Park makes it his own, though, and even if he is not proficient in English, his images transcend language.
The cast is top-notch. Nicole Kidman continues to take on quirky roles in interesting movies, when she could be appearing in more Hollywood blockbuster fare, and I enjoyed her here as the damaged mom, who finds herself competing with India for Charlie’s affections. She doesn’t seem all that broken up when her husband dies. Days later she’s playing tennis with Charlie. But there’s something in her eyes at times, that there’s a part of her that’s crushed. Goode is suitably creepy as Uncle Charlie (he also played Ozymandias in WATCHMEN, 2009) and believable as a psycho who can seem unhinged at times, and other times is completely calm and collected, and pretty cool. But the main attraction here is Mia Wasikowska, who previously played the character Sophie in the great HBO series, IN TREATMENT (the 2008 season), but who is better known for playing Alice in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010). Here, she plays a tortured girl who might just have murder in her DNA, and it’s an especially brave performance.
My only complaint is that sometimes India seems a little too wrapped up in her own world. Not that I don’t think there are real girls like this, but she seems a little Wednesday Addams-ish at times. And while she is the target of cruelty from the boys at high school, just where are the girls? In the school scenes we see, she appears to be the only girl in her school. Or rather, any other girls seem to disappear on the fringes in these scenes. Not that I would expect someone like India to have female friends, but you would think the girls in her school could be as cruel as the boys. Instead, they simply aren’t there.
And speaking of people who simply aren’t there, some characters “disappear” rather abruptly and no one seems concerned about them. A maiden aunt, Gwen Stoker (Jacki Weaver, who also played Bradley Cooper’s mom in last year’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) comes to visit, intending to perhaps warn the Stoker girls about delightful houseguest Charlie. It doesn’t take long before she’s among the missing, but none of the characters seem to notice or care. She’s not the most likable character, but you would think someone would at least wonder where she went.
And the title is a bit off-putting. With a title like STOKER, most people are going to assume it has something to do with author Bram Stoker, the man who gave us Dracula, and maybe vampires are involved. They’re not. And ol’ Bram has nothing to do with the storyline here, either. The family’s name could be anything, and naming them Stoker just seems too much like an annoying red herring.
Despite its flaws, I really liked this movie. It has a great cast, it looks great, and while it’s not Chan-wook Park’s most uncompromising work, it’s got enough of his DNA to make it extremely watchable. While I don’t think it’s as good as Park’s Korean films, it’s a dark piece of mischief in its own right. And where it doesn’t erupt in utter carnage the way a movie like OLDBOY does, it does have an inner violence to it. A psychological pressure, threatening to pop.
I give it three and a half knives.
© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares
LL Soares gives STOKER ~three and a half knives.