Friday, July 19, 2013

FI: Stoker

US/UK, 2012
Directed by Park Chan-Wook

Stoker is a film that is full of portent. The first English language picture by Korean master stylist Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy), the film is replete with visual symbolism and sumptuous details that fill eccentric teen India Stoker's (Mia Wasikowska) coming of age with signifiers of dread and incipient madness. After an auto accident kills India's beloved father (Dermot Mulroney aka Derbal McDillett), mysterious globe-trotting Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay with her and her distant mother (Nicole Kidman). Charlie's arrival offers an escape from the family's static home life, and his hypnotic, erotic influence on both women is the dark heart through which Stoker earns its titular reference to the progenitor of vampire fiction.

Hitchcock fans will immediately see another of Stoker's major points of reference in Uncle Charlie's name, which is taken from the murderous uncle in Shadow of a Doubt. Much like that Uncle Charlie, this one seems to share a mysterious connection with his niece, though India somehow never knew he existed prior to his arrival. And, much like his namesake, Goode's Uncle Charlie has a dark secret, though his niece reacts to this revelation in a much different fashion than Teresa Wright's character in Hitchcock's classic. This proves a key distinction: Stoker is about India not so much choosing who to be, as realizing which aspects of her personality make her feel like herself, and breaking through repression to let these aspects run free. It is an awakening rather than a choice.

Park's pet psychological issues are writ large here, with voyeurism, incestuous Freudian threads, and sexualized violence all getting heavy play. These themes are woven through Stoker's mysteries and lend the film its gothic, transgressive atmosphere. But the film's major issue is one of style over substance. The characters drift and loll through scenes, despite otherwise solid performances, and Stoker often feels listless and adrift in its portent where it should feel tense. The film aspires to be a sort of unfiltered Hitchcock riff via Chabrol and De Palma, but it eschews the restraint and patient screw-turning through which their shocks accumulated power, in favor of metaphor, discontinuous editing, and stillness. As a cine-literate tone piece about repressed sexuality and violent instincts, Stoker can't be written off. But perhaps the writer's (Prison Break's Wentworth Miller) and director's hands are a little too present, such that events and behaviors that should arise through the characters instead feel externally willed upon the characters. Despite its flashes of brilliance, Stoker simply lays too many cards on the table without knowing how best to play them in service of its story.

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