Stoker (2013)

Directed by Park Chan-wook
Written by Wentworth Miller

This has to be one of the more interesting releases early on in the 2013 movie season, and for a handful of reasons. For me, the most significant beacon attracting me to see the film is the director, Park Chan-wook, a Korean master whose Vengeance trilogy is highlighted by the 2003 film Oldboy, a film getting the American remake treatment from Spike Lee and Josh Brolin. Stoker marks his first English language effort, and that alone is intriguing enough to get me in the seats. The second reason is the film’s screenwriter, Wentworth Miller. The star of the television series Prison Break makes his debut as a writer, and to get a director like Park to direct your script certainly speaks volumes of the potential of the material. Throw in a few Australian actresses to make this “American” film and you’ve got yourself a nice bowl of potpourri potential.

The Stoker family must begin grieving after the death of Richard (Dermot Mulroney), the father of India (Mia Wasikowska) and husband of Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). To help them recover from the sudden loss, Charlie (Matthew Goode) mysteriously appears after years of absence from the family. Although her uncle, India never knew he existed and his presence becomes more and more ominous as tension arises between all three. India and Charlie begin to form a strange bond, but soon enough India finds her suspicion for Charlie arises, concerned that his true motive for coming back and caring for her and her mother is less than savory.

What results with the collection of influences going in to making this film is somewhat of a miracle of a result. As an American production, it is in many ways a film that shows no signs of being an American film. The Stoker’s live in Connecticut, sure, but the style seen in the film, Park’s directorial style, makes it echo his Korean efforts. It makes no real attempt to be that American style film, and that becomes a strength of the film as the story lends itself so well to the psychological approach for which Park has become so well known. This may alienate some viewers expecting something different, but what Park accomplishes here is cunning style and a tautly woven thriller by the combination of the seen and unseen.

At the center of the film is India and Mia Wasikowska’s wonderful performance. Quite a bit of it involves her putting on a concerned and confused look in the face of the new surroundings: no more father, and now a new and foreign uncle. This is her story, told through her eyes. In fact, some of the other aspects seem influenced by her perception of them. Not until well into the film do we even see a scene which India herself could not have witnessed, which had me wondering how much of what was happening was reality, and whether any of it was a dream, or warped perception from the broken mind of India. The editing of the film really lends itself to this style. The editing moves the stream of narrative quite fluidly from one image to another. Definitely a strength of the film. Early on Kidman and Goode’s performances seem very wooden and caricature, which added to my theory of a dream sequence.

But the film soon evolves into something else. The visual style and tension remains, but the script begins to be less ambiguous and suggest more reality, leaving behind some of the mystery and molding it into confusion in some instances. Certainly my own confusion is no fault of the film, but it was a detraction from the experience as the story morphed in the final act. The somewhat ambiguous ending, which works as a bookend with the very beginning of the film, gave me a sense of “what does it all mean?” but sometimes a film that formulates such a wonderfully spun thriller, full of technical bliss, like the amazing cinematography working in perfect marriage to the editing style, is just what we want to escape for some entertainment. The craft from Park Chan-wook is astounding, and enough to make this a success story in the face of its bleak, dark narrative.

*** – Very Good

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