Release Date: March 1, 2013
"Stoker" isn't nearly as disturbing or clever as it thinks it is.
Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Edwards Brea Stadium West 10
Time: 7:40 pm March 17, 2013
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 40 min
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Loves: Disturbing psychological thrillers, inventive camera tricks
Likes: Nicole Kidman
Neutral: Mia Wasikowska
Hates: Movies that aren't as smart and disturbing as they think they are
Disclaimer time: I have never seen any of Chan-wook Park's other films
On the day of India Stoker's (Mia Wasikowska) 18th birthday her loving father (Dermot Mulroney) is involved in a fatal car accident that leaves her and her unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) on their own. That is until India's mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never even knew existed until now, shows up at her father's wake and charms her mother into letting him stay with them, after which numerous people begin to mysteriously disappear out of India's life. As Charlie begins to make his intentions clearer with each passing day, India finds herself caught in his web of deceit as many of her own secrets and dark nature comes forth due to her Uncle's strange and incestual interest in her and her mother.
Director Chan-wook Park has made a name for himself here in the States with some rather disturbing, violent and offbeat films such as his 2003 cult favorite "Oldboy" (which is currently being remade here in America) and the action/adventure "Vengeance" films. Fans of the director and critics alike often sited how bizarre and outlandish his films were, take for instance this review from the Philadelphia Inquirer about his 2009 vampire opus "Thirst",
"Thirst begins with great intellectual and artistic promise, then devolves into a repetitious mess of teeth, blades, necks, bites, arterial sprays, sex, sex, sex and death."
Even that mostly negative review seems to indicate the vision of a director who himself has a thirst for making unique films, which makes his North American feature film debut that much more of a perplexing disappointment. For a filmmaker who has been universally praised for his daring and audacious films, "Stoker" feels more like someone putting their foot in the water to test the temperature than a seasoned filmmaker looking to jump in and make a big splash.
Right off the bat there are a number of things to appreciate about this strangely disassociated drama surrounding a disjointed family trying to rediscover themselves after the tragic death of the one person in their lives who held them all together. Sadly almost none of the visual tricks Park uses are a substitute for the lack of any real substance. There is no denying that Park is a gifted filmmaker, the film is just a treat to look at from beginning to end. Often times blending shots together in a seamless and natural style that is sure to have some labeling him as more of a visual showboat (a sequence where a dissolve from a close up of someones hair being brushed that turns into the tall grass covering a large field is a standout). While there is nothing inherently wrong with being labeled a showboat at times (look at the work of David Fincher), but when there isn't anything there to support such a striking visual canvas it can lead to some unpleasant comparisons with other directors who like to show instead of tell (Tarsem Singh being the best example).
In this case those comparisons are not exactly warranted since the underlying story and atmosphere of "Stoker" are still compelling even if the decidedly glacial pace of the film detracts from the overall impact of its many revelations and surprise twists. Taking a few notes from the school of Hitchcock, Park uses the unstable relationship between India and her mother as the jumping off point for a trip down taboo lane. While it never outright becomes a film about incestual relations, the writing is most certainly on the wall when we are first introduced to India's Uncle Charlie. Charlie is the enigma of the picture (or is he?), we are placed in the same shoes as India and her mother, both of whom have never met him before with Evie being the only one of the two who even knew about her late husband's younger brother. He is a threatening figure but he has a calmness to him that is just disarming enough for a person to let their guard down.
The way Charlie leers at India while gardening, making dinner or even when she is caught red handed spying on him and her mother during more intimate moments, it just leaves the audience feeling awkward and just a little bit off kilter which is clearly the effect that Park was shooting for. When Charlie's ultimate intentions are revealed and the motivations for his actions are made aware to us however, that is when the film unfortunately switches from this interesting portrait about a family on the brink of falling apart at the seams and turns into what basically amounts to your standard murder mystery thriller, albeit a good looking one. There are still little bits and pieces that hold together until the end but ultimately this is where the film loses most of its ground. Due not so much to the revelation itself but more of a failing with how the film seems to think it is much more disturbing and clever than it actually is.
Nearly all the sequences involving Charlie and the reveal his "condition" as well as what he has been up to is sabotaged by how obvious the set up is. When the housekeeper goes missing, when Aunt Gwendolyn can't be reached on the phone, it is telegraphed so decisively as to what is happening early on that when India discovers the truth about her Uncle it is all met with a proverbial shrug of the shoulders. The audience will likely have a reaction akin to, "Of course he was responsible for that, look at how creepy he is!". The film wants to shock us so badly that it forgets the key element to any good surprise, keep it ambiguous. Whether it is the fault of the actor, the script or the director, Matthew Goode's performance as the mysterious Uncle does everything but wear blood stained clothes around the house to inform us of who he really is.
A more successful part of this equation though is India and her growing psychological problems. In some cases it seems like the Uncle is more of a tool to help shape the path India is traveling down (as was her deceased father). By the time she realizes who her Uncle is we may already have him pegged but she still has some dark secrets of her own. In one of the film's only slightly disturbing moments we are witness to India pleasuring herself in the shower after just helping her Uncle with some grisly business that concluded with a grave in the garden. It's not necessarily shocking, but it is an interesting arc for the lead character, especially when up to that point we had been led to believe India is this helpless little girl who is under the spell of her handsome Uncle. Where India's story eventually goes nearly redeems the film's other flaws (including the bland acting of Wasikowska who continues to get these leading roles despite her inability project any sense of a personality), but it doesn't save it.
"Stoker" is a strange film. It isn't exactly a formulaic picture but it never does anything truly remarkable enough to set itself apart from other similar films. From it's excruciating slow pace (the film comes in just over 90 minutes but feels two hours long) and a series of mysteries that aren't nearly as mysterious as they seem or have any real impact when they are revealed, the film becomes a much more predictable and pedestrian experience than it's taboo subject matter would lead you to believe. There are hints of an interesting movie in there with India's progression into a full fledged homicidal maniac, but instead we are supposed to sit there and be in awe of the admittedly mesmerizing cinematography while waiting for something interesting to happen....which never does. But by far the film's greatest failing is that it doesn't show off the talent of its director, a filmmaker whose reputation far exceeds the banal and plodding nature of his North American feature film debut.