Movie Review: Stoker
STOKER throws down the gauntlet for the 2013 Oscar race. Thanks to the vision of director Chan wook Park who makes his long-awaited English speaking film debut, superlative and edgy cinematography by Chung-Hoon Chung, and Nicholas de Toth’s rapier editing, STOKER stokes the fires of excellence on every level. This is hands down a potential Oscar nod for Park, Chung, possibly de Toth, and an acting nod to Matthew Goode, as well.
Nicole Kidman enthusiastically recalls being “amazed at the filmmaking” during the production process and on seeing the final cut, had one immediate thought - “Wow!” And I must concur, as “wow” is the word for STOKER. Delicious macabre decadence filled with sadomasochistic overtones, fueling a voyeuristic thirst for visual and sensory stimulation. Beautifully psychologically twisted, all of which goes to the cinematography and use of color and over-exaggerated, skewed visual geometrics that deliver a haunting, exhilarating and shocking sensory experience. STOKER is a true visual and psychological masterpiece of twisted beauty that equals and, at times, surpasses, Hitchcockian brilliance.
India Stoker is devoted to her father, Richard. Since her birth, everything has been Daddy and India with mother Evelyn, or “Evie” as she likes to be called, omitted from the mix. So when Richard is suddenly killed in a horrific car crash, India retreats deep within her psyche and memories, distancing herself even further from Evie and those around her. Evie, on the other hand, seems to relish the attention lavished upon her by doting friends, playing the part of the grieving, yet seductive, widow to the hilt.
Sparking India’s curiosity, however, is the arrive of her Uncle Charlie. Unaware that she even had an uncle or that her father had a brother, his appearance is somewhat unsettling. As he takes an over-protective interest in India, Evie takes an overly sexual interest in Charlie. With India’s mind whirling with questions about Charlie, she is only told he has been traveling the globe, with no specifics elicited.
But something doesn’t sit right with India about Uncle Charlie. He hovers about her so much that it feels creepily salacious. And since his arrival strange things have been happening in the Stoker mansion. Their lifelong housekeeper has disappeared and so has India’s aunt who stopped by to pay her respects and to speak with India about something secretive, something about Charlie. And of course, Evie is now looking for her own playmate and sees the answer in Charlie. Yet, when push comes to shove and India needs rescuing from a high school boy who doesn’t understand that “no means no”, Uncle Charlie charges in to save her. But how?
Through it all, India watches and waits, just as she did in thickets with her father while pheasant hunting. She sees all and eventually, comes to understand all, all of the secrets of the Stoker family, including herself.
Take the darkness of Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams, make it darker, more somber, more controlled but less robotic and you have Mia Wasikowska’s India Stoker. With few words, Wasikowska relies on effectively nuanced looks. She excels at looking vacant and disinterested but fully immersed and observant, absorbing all around her. One tilt of the head which is then exaggerated by a unique camera angle, speaks volumes. She is an encyclopedia of emotion thanks to just a look, the cross of her ankles, the grip of a pencil. She makes you gravitate towards India wanting to crawl into her world.
And then there’s Matthew Goode, and may I just say, Goode’s got it!! A die hard admirer of Goode’s for more than a decade, he oozes sexual mystique and charm at every turn. Suave, carefree, sexy, walking the fine line of propriety, Goode shrowds Charlie in mystery, giving himself over completely to the dark side with a deliberate, controlled, meticulous performance that just allows the psychosis to flow in calculated increments like a drug-infused IV. Captivatingly eerie. Oscar should come knocking Goode’s way.
Nicole Kidman steps it up more than an notch with her take on Evie. (Forget the fact that her face is virtually immobile from cosmetically enhancing injections.) At a distance, there are certain scenes where Kidman’s Evie almost looks like a porcelain doll. Poised, perfect, as if she will break if she moves. But then as Evie falls under the spell of Uncle Charlie and craves his youth as her own, craves the attention, and attempts to be girlishly seductive, Kidman creates this manipulative persona spinning a web of self-centered satisfaction that is undeniably enticing. The moment where Kidman truly excels, however, is in a climactic scene with India where she spews and sputters about the purpose of children, “You were supposed to love me.” Command of the screen and our emotions at its finest.
Written by Wentworth Miller, one look and you know his 8 years+ spent on this screenplay was well worth it. This is a master class in psychological manipulation. Layered with subtext, Miller’s work is nuanced, deliberate, exacting. He leaves no stone unturned. The attention to detail both in the scripted story with minimal dialogue and the accompanying visuals is meticulous. And yes, when I first heard of the project and the name STOKER, my mind immediately went to the delicious darkness and psychology of Bram Stoker’s works, something that plays in spades with the psychological structure of the characters and story here.
But then there’s director Chan wook Park. A magician. A master. According to Kidman, “[Director Park] creates incredible atmosphere. And this script relies heavily on the language of the images because there’s not a lot of dialogue and so the cinematic language of it has to be very, very strong. When I had a meeting with him, we talked about all of that and it was just extraordinary how detailed and precise in what he knew he wanted to say it with. And his use of color and sound and everything is all very specific and it’s not by chance. . . [it] fills in a lot in a script like this.”
Shooting closely, intimately, with an almost feverish intensity, from the start we are treated to innovative angular geometric framing. No scene is shot in a “traditional” format. There is no symmetry. There are times one feels as if immersed in an M.C. Escher lithograph or the world of Salvador Dali. Geometric shapes play heavily into not only the actual visuals, but the resulting emotion. Hard lines of doorways, tables, boxes, use of edged patterns meet curved staircases, round boulders and uneven edging of slate garden pavers. Thanks to some stunning subtle effects and razored editing, nature melds with nature, man melds with nature and all becomes one. A standout is a scene with Evie brushing her air and thanks to park’s visual perceptions, we see it dissolve into the winter grass and reeds of the woods during a hunting trip with India and her father. Breathtaking effect.
Hand in hand with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s innovative and creative lighting and lensing is the use of color. Red and yellow are deliberately and carefully utilized for not only shock effect, but metaphoric effect - danger, warning. Red front door. Red blood splattering over the purity of dainty white flowers; dramatically cast over pale white skin; deepened to an almost purple when mixed with the deep dark wide sheen of the hardwood floors; yellow pencils; the red and yellow geometrics in India’s art class vase and her interpretive exacting drawing; even the subtlety of muted red and yellow in the water-color blouse worn first by Evie and then India. Color is reserved for specific things, specific emotions, specific “tells”. Clothing on the whole remains dark, black, white, grey moving into the muddy dark browns and palest of skin tone blushes. Kidman’s hair color even produces different red sheens depending on the scene. And while at the funeral, white wine is being served, with the appearance of Uncle Charlie, nightly wines turn to red, meat is blood red, eye-popping cherry tomatoes, ice cream containers are in a pinkish red and yellow..... Warning, danger, death. A fascinating visual study unto itself.
Significant is the timelessness of the film. Thanks to costume designers Kurt and Bart, fashion is classic. Decor is old money traditional. Even the most significant car in the film is a classic. This classic timelessness just fuels the concept of hidden dark secrets of the past. Old money, old world, old secrets.
Kudos to producers for nabbing production designer Theresa DePrez who is meticulous with evocative surrealism. DePrez wowed with her work in “Black Swan” and here is no different. Another “Black Swan” veteran is composer Clint Mansell whose hauntingly eerie score permeates the skin, seaping into our pours as intrigue pours out of the screen.
As for Chan wook Park as a director in America with English speaking films, after seeing STOKER, I can only say, MORE, MORE, MORE. American cinema is receiving a transfusion it has long needed - the innovation and excitement, the courage and vision to think outside the box that we are now seeing with the Korean directors like Park and KIM Jae-woon. The juices are flowing, the thrill, the edginess, the excitement and manipulative psychological magic of the movies is back with STOKER.
Directed by Chan wook Park
Written by Wentworth Miller with contributions by Erin Cressida Wilson
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver