There's doubts, shadows and something sinister at the heart of Chan-wook Park's Stoker. So how did the South Korean director's western debut actually turn out..?
When Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) is killed in a car-crash during a mysterious trip that takes him away from home on his daughter's eighteenth birthday, his wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and daugher India (Mia Wasikowska) handle their desolation in different ways. Always her father's daughter - they would take hunting trips away together where he taught her to patiently hunt with a rifle) - there is now a chasm between mother and daughter: Evelyn seeking solace in a facade of strength and a wine-glass full of denial, while India withdraws even further into isolation. Given her natural gift of heightened hearing, she's all too aware of the whispers of gossip that crawl through their rural mansion's staff as she is of the insects that crawl around its floors. Into this skewed aftermath and just in time for his brother's funeral comes Charlie (Matthew Goode), the younger sibling and one who exudes a manipulative confidence and charisma. He moves like a coiled snake with a cadence to his voice and manner that could sell that creature's oil. But both Evelyn and India find themselves drawn to him, seduced in different ways. The house and its inhabitants seem unnaturally... disturbed. But why IS Charlie here? What is India's role in a bigger tapestry of betrayal and in a game of blood-stained power, how far are they all willing to go?
Chan-wook Park is a familiar name to Impact readers... his catalogue of work in his native Korea reads like a What's What of extreme cinema, packed with strong visuals, visceral plots and boundary-pushing activities (you'll never look at an octopus the same way again). So there's an immediate fascination as to how his first fully-western movie would be made and received. The good news is that Stoker is a hard-to-forget, technically-daring movie that is both deeply-layered and holds the attention throughout. There's an argument to be made that this is a triumph of style over substance and certainly one of the most successful elements of the Stoker experience (and this IS a film for which 'experience' seems the right word) is the way that Chan-wook Park plays with both vision and sound - from the opening credits that seem to be part of the background to the audio representing the heightened levels of hearing which India has had all of her life - encouraged byhehr late father. The camera lingers both lovingly and scarily on faces: India's multi-flecked eyes - somehow looking simultaneously vividly alive and deathly hollow - and Evelyn's long flowing hair and quivering lips. This is a story - with undeniable echoes of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt - in which every single frame has been considered. Movement, lens, lighting ans sound have rarely worked together this enticingly.
However, it may well be a case that western audiences will appreciate this outing more than existing die-hard fans of the director. The latter may feel there's been some compromises to the more outlandish and extreme elements that Park brought to the likes of Oldboy, Thirst and Lady Vengeance. Perhaps - in part - due to a trimming of the running time for UK audiences, it ocassionally tilts away from the moody shadows and a little too heavily into moments of cliche including some ill-fated taunting of India by her somewhat stereotypical class-mates that you know isn't going to end well. The result is a film that mixes Hitchcock, De Palma, a smidgen of David Lynch and even Tim Burton, though there's no denying Park's fingerprints are visible throughout. The cast are excellent. Wasikowska is quite simply mesmerising - a cross between Sissy Spacek's Carrie and a darker version of Winona Ryder's Lydia in Beetlejuice - giving both an earthy and unearthly ephemeral performance as a gothic ingenue. Kidman is given less to do than expected, though she demonstrates her character's stylish, disconnected sophistication and hasn't look so fractured and haunted since The Others. Goode is simply deliciously sinister, inhabiting a character who you'd think sensible people would run from on sight but also demonstrates enough charisma to demonstrate why they'd keep him around. You know he has an agenda, so better to keep him in sight.
If you go with the stylistic flow, for much of the film you'll be completely intrigued and unnerved by the events and central characters - not always entirely sure what is real or what is imagined. In that respect, this is one of the most deliciously provocative puzzles, but is this symphony for vengeance sinister and supernatural or merely insidiously human? However such enigmatic films sometimes stumble in their third reel, when they ultimately have to deliver a pay-off and reveal where some of the creative paths were leading or frustrate their viewers. It's here that audiences may be divided on Stoker's success. The climactic revelations and endgame works well within the momentum of the film's disturbing internal logic, but the actual closing minutes seem like a western compromise.
The script by Wentworth Miller (yes, he of Prison Break acting fame) is solid and coupled with Park's eye for detail and angle, it's a potent mix that remains grounded enough to tempt mainstream audiences through its casting and reward them in unexpected ways thereafter. Dripping with dark sensuality, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt (a literally climactic scene on the piano is perhaps the film's signature moment as a recital turns into a powerful duelling duet) Stoker is a film by a clearly talented director with a vision: one about love, family, temptation, chaos, sex and death... so in many ways, this most gothic of story of death could arguably be just as much about life itself... though one might want to avoid a Park life for the sake of one's mental health.
STOKER (18) is released by Fox Searchlight acrosss the UK from March 1st.
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