Friday, March 22, 2013

Stoker: A chilling family affair

Stoker (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence, disturbing sexual content, dramatic intensity and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.29.13

In Chan-wook Park’s corrosive view of the universe, blood isn’t merely thicker than water; it positively congeals the connective tissue of inherited moral putrescence.

And nurture doesn’t stand a chance against nature.

India (Mia Wasikowska) loves to play the piano; it's a great way to release tension.
Charles (Matthew Goode) also enjoys the instrument, but his fondness seems more
directed at playing with his niece ... and the resulting duets turn rather creepy.
Park, the South Korean director known for gorgeously stylized but grimly unsettling thrillers such as 2003’s Oldboy and 2009’s weirdly disturbing Thirst, has made an equally disconcerting American debut with Stoker. This new film is gorgeous to look at, with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung creating captivating magic with every frame, but the on-screen beauty is at odds with the casual rot festering within our three primary characters.

That juxtaposition is intentional, of course, as is the undercurrent of amused detachment that laces every scene in Wentworth Miller’s gleefully nasty script. These characters taunt, torment and torture each other with an élan the Borgias would have admired, and Park orchestrates the mayhem in a manner that essentially dares us to enjoy the depravity right along with them.

Some of the humor is obvious, starting with the connotations raised by Miller’s choice of a family name — Stoker — or the affectionate nod toward Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, by naming Matthew Goode’s unhinged interloper Uncle Charlie. But we also can’t help chuckling at the enthusiastically carnivorous manner in which Goode tears into his character; rarely has evil been this charming, tempting ... and forbidden.

The film opens as India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), recently turned 18, stands at the edge of a field, staring intently at something within. She describes herself cryptically via off-camera narration, adding a layer of poetic eloquence to a tableau that already seems vaguely wrong.

The scene shifts to an India who seems slightly younger and significantly more withdrawn; we understand that we have retreated in time, but not too much. This is her 18th birthday, and she’s indulging in her favorite annual treat: finding the “special” present from her beloved father, who always hides it in a cryptic manner. The gift itself doesn’t matter all that much, and in fact it’s the same every year: a fresh pair of saddle shoes (definitely not an accidental choice on Miller’s part, given the shoes’ striking contrast between black and white).

No, India anticipates the thrill of the hunt, and the knowledge that her father has gone to so much trouble to please her.

But this birthday is colored by tragedy, as the household is stricken by the news that Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) has been killed in an explosive car crash, his body burned beyond recognition. India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), takes this news with odd detachment; we gradually realize that her emotions have been blunted by years of inexorable estrangement, possibly augmented by alcoholism.

India glances up during the gravesite ceremony, suddenly feeling the presence of an additional set of eyes; she spots a shadowy figure at one end of the cemetery. Later, during the wake back at home, this figure introduces himself as Richard’s brother, Charles. Even through her emotionless ennui, Evelyn reacts with surprise: This is a man about whom she knows nothing, save for the mere fact of his existence. He is, indeed, her late husband’s younger brother.

India, even more suspicious, takes pains to avoid contact, let alone conversation. But when Charles announces his intentions to stay for awhile, she eventually cannot avoid him.

“What do you want?” she finally challenges him, one day.

“I want to be friends,” he answers.

She pauses a beat, considering her reply, and then says, “We don’t have to be friends. We’re family.”

Right there, the bond is struck ... although India doesn’t know it yet. But Charles does, and his smug half-smile is a thing of chilling, hypnotic triumph.

Indeed, it’s impossible to take our eyes off Goode. Park elicits a performance that is otherworldly, almost supernatural; on top of his many other disturbing talents, Charles has an uncanny knack for appearing at precisely the right (or wrong) moment. Park’s fans will be excused for wondering, during this film’s first act, whether we’ll soon stray into the vampiric horror of Thirst.

But no, Miller’s story is rigorously real-world, albeit somewhat removed from the trappings of civilized society. India, her mother and Charles reside in a massive estate that bespeaks considerable family money; although India attends high school and occasionally interacts with fellow students, she spends most of her time — as do we — in the opulent shelter of her home and its surrounding woods.

The huge mansion is overseen by a housekeeper — Phyllis Somerville, as Mrs. McGarrick — who brings in additional staff as required. Strange, then, that as Charles’ visit lengthens from days to weeks, these menials stop coming. And Mrs. McGarrick, for her part, simply vanishes. Evelyn doesn’t seem to notice.

India, who misses nothing, definitely notices. Even more than we initially realize.

The resulting pas de deux between uncle and niece is fascinating on all sorts of levels, starting — most noticeably — with its incestuous whiff, and also because we’re not quite sure who’s playing whom. At the same time, Park definitely plays us: suggesting much but revealing little, composing scenes that appear straightforward but turn out to be seductively ambiguous. Or, worse yet, horrific.

Best of the latter comes when India, following a close encounter in the woods that turns vicious, retreats home to cleanse herself with a long shower. She seems stunned, distraught, shattered beyond speech; Wasikowska’s body language bespeaks stark, soul-grinding terror ... too much to absorb. But as the scene continues, we realize — and not happily — that we’ve made yet another rash assumption, and the revelation has the impact of a physical blow. It’s a slick piece of acting by Wasikowska.

Park, Chung and editor Nicolas De Toth contribute to this edgy sense of uncertainty at every turn. We watch spiders scuttle across the floor and then crawl up a leg; strands of gently brushed hair morph into a grassy field; lap-dissolves are employed at odd moments, as transitions from one scene to the next.

Clint Mansell’s minor key, piano-heavy score deftly augments the creepy undertone.

Much as we admire the luxurious art of Park’s approach, however, all this technical virtuosity remains at odds with the increasingly sordid narrative. A sense of behavioral disconnect also begins to emerge, and that’s more troublesome. Could anybody — even somebody as cold and withdrawn as Evelyn — really fail to perceive the monster she has sheltered beneath her roof?

Kidman doesn’t help much; it’s impossible to get a reading on Evelyn’s thoughts or possible motivations.

More tellingly, when our trio receives an unexpected visit from Charles and Richard’s Aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) — a woman who knows everything about Charles, and definitely fears him — it’s impossible to accept what happens later that same evening. That’s simply ridiculous: jarring enough to sever our willingness to accept that these events actually could happen in the real world, even in a secluded manor in the quiet part of a small town. We wonder, suddenly, if this is all an unbalanced young woman’s fever dream.

(I don’t think that for a moment ... but when Miller’s script deviates so much from reasonable human behavior, our complicit relationship with this film suffers.)

Although this claustrophobic storyline doesn’t permit many intruders, a few surface long enough to deserve mention. Alden Ehrenreich, such a noble hero in the currently released Beautiful Creatures, strikes a sympathetic chord here as Whip, a high school classmate who seems to understand India’s withdrawn nature. Ralph Brown is suitably disarming as the local sheriff, who — like India — may perceive more than he lets on.

We don’t spend much time with India’s father Richard until a third-act flashback, at which point Mulroney establishes a very strong presence; he’s particularly compelling as Richard struggles with his mixed feelings for the younger brother he both loves and loathes. At the same time, we suddenly wonder whether Richard has been sheltering India from her uncle ... or attempting to blunt something awful by granting it an outlet.

India’s voice-over self observes that her father felt that it was all right to do something bad, if that might prevent one from doing something worse. Needless to say, that opens all sorts of disconcerting windows into her soul.

It’s easy to fall under this film’s spell; Miller’s script is fascinating, if repulsive, and Park’s approach — the very atmosphere he generates — is as mesmerizing as Charles himself. But you’ll likely feel soiled after the lights come up, and want to wash away the sense of having participated, as a reluctant voyeur, in something very, very nasty.

If a film’s success is determined by the way it lingers in one’s mind, then Stoker is successful indeed.

Because you won’t forget this sick puppy any time soon.

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