March 10, 2013

STOKER Is Dark, Twisted, And Sexy As Hell

"Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse."

Of all the movies I've seen over the years, there are a handful that I would regard as "perfect movies."  They are above reproach and given the chance, I wouldn't change a thing about them.  It's a short list.  It includes (but isn't limited to) Robocop, Ghostbusters, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and most of Tarantino's resume.  Also on that list is Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy, a violent tale of revenge from a filmmaker that I consider to be South Korea's version of Alfred Hitchcock.  Oldboy is the second part of Park's incredible Vengeance Trilogy, and while he's made a handful of films since then, they've been a little all over the place.  I've missed most of them so they're on my list to watch before the year is out.

Regardless, the man lives up to the title "visionary" and I've long been looking forward to his English language debut, Stoker.  It's a darkly twisted coming-of-age story about India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) a thoughtful, solitary girl whose father dies in a car wreck on her 18th birthday.  She's left alone on the family's sprawling estate with her cold, high-society mother Evelyn, played by the increasingly wax-faced Nicole Kidman.  Her mysterious uncle Charlie, a man they've never met before, shows up at the funeral and quickly takes up residence at the Stoker home.  While Evelyn is clearly infatuated with his fresh faced good looks and quiet intensity, Charlie seems to be much more interested in India, although exactly to what end is not entirely clear.  I don't want to say anything more about the plot because the slow sense of discovery throughout the story is one of the film's greatest strengths.  Suffice it to say it's a great slow build that includes more than a few surprises along the way.

Stoker is quite simply one of the greatest coming of age tales I've ever seen.  Wasikowska's gradual transformation from a barefooted innocent to a sexy, self-possessed woman is nothing short of a breathtaking experience.  She has an emotional shower scene that's as powerful a moment as I've seen in a film this year and will stay with you long after you've left the theater.  I'd say this is the performance of a lifetime, but Wasikowska is still awfully young and I have no doubt that she's got plenty left to show us in the coming years.  All plastic surgery jokes aside, Kidman fits well into the role of a socialite seemingly made of cracking porcelain, terrified of being abandoned and desperate for attention of any kind.  Evelyn is a character that borders on unsympathetic, but she make a nice turn near the end that almost makes up for her past behavior.  Matthew Goode, meanwhile, is startlingly creepy as the uncle with the hidden agenda.  Even when we know he's up to no good, his ultimate goal as well as his motivations present an engrossing puzzle for the audience; not only are we missing certain pieces, we're not really even sure what the final image will reveal.  I really hope that his work here creates some new opportunities for Goode.  Obviously he is a very good looking guy, but I think he shows a more insidious side of himself here that we've never really seen before.  (In a way it almost reminded me of an extreme distortion of his Ozymandias character from Zack Snyder's Watchmen.)

As great as the three leads are, it's Park Chan-Wook who really blew me away.  Plenty of Asian filmmakers have trouble making the transition to English language movies.  Language barriers aside, so many of these directors seem to struggle transmuting their style into a shape that will appeal to American audiences.  Fortunately, it really feels as if Park was given free reign here, as every frame feels 100% authentic to his vision.  Something about India's collection of childhood shoes, encircling her on the bed, reminded me so much of Oldboy's dumplings.  Park has a masterful grasp of visual language, suggesting so much even with the simple framing of his shots.

His use of sound mixing is also superb.  Early on, India says that she can see and hear small details that nobody else notices and Park will linger on a certain sound effect or some small visual artifact.  Seeing the tan line from a missing wedding ring or hearing the sound of breathy swallows reverberate within a wineglass  allows us to really experience scenes directly from India's perspective.  Any fan of Oldboy can tell you that Park knows how to mess with the audience's collective head.  He doesn't just employ a Shyamalan-like twist ending, but instead skillfully subverts the audience's expectation in any given moment.  Instead of feeling trite and gimmicky, it's actually incredibly freeing.  You feel not only as if truly anything could happen next, but that nothing that you've already seen means what you think it does.  The film's final image is both simple and jaw dropping, giving the opening credits an entirely new color.

I delayed writing about this movie for almost a full week because my schedule got away from me a bit and I wanted to make sure I gave the movie my full attention rather than rushing just to get something published.  Stoker is far and away my favorite screening so far and I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being one of the best movies of 2013.  The bar has officially been set.

I can't wait to see who clears it.

Title: Stoker
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: In Theaters (Kendall Square)

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