Skip to main content

We don't need to be friends. We're family.


Stoker
(2013)

(SPOILERS) I didn’t much care for Oldboy. I should qualify that. I thought it had an arresting premise, and Chan wook-Park worked wonders during the early stages. But, once his protagonist had escaped his prison (and that incredible fight scene), the structure gradually fell apart for me. It careened into a hysterical (not as in funny) and overwrought conclusion, both in terms of story and the director’s OTT staging. I’m sure many would argue for its brilliance for that very reason, but I felt that I’d been promised something intricate and was then served a rather daft and cod-operatic denouement. I know it’s heresy to say anything negative about Oldboy, but there you are. Stoker’s the first of his films I’ve seen since then, and it continues to eke out territory of dark secrets and fucked up families. It has also a fairly standard plot, one you could imagine adapted by another director to middling results. So this means that Park is the star of the show; it’s his densely textured treatment of the material that makes it stand out. I’ve seen comparisons made to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but the most obvious parallel to the suspense master is that Park takes a solid but unremarkable script and works an at times breath-taking magic on it.


Stoker was penned by Wentworth Miller, star of the sublimely dumb Prison Break. He has cited Shadow of a Doubt as an inspiration for the screenplay (along with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, hence the title/surname of the main characters), down to both pieces featuring a character named Uncle Charlie. There isn’t much depth to his story, or to the characters. Part psychological horror and part domestic drama, we’re never encouraged to quite see this as a readily identifiable world. Much of that may be the hazy, heightened, dreamlike mood with which the director suffuses Miller’s. But it’s also down to the gothic theatricality of the source material.


Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a gothically self-involved girl whose father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a car accident on her 18th birthday. Her relationship with her highly-strung mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is difficult, and the arrival of Richard’s previously unknown brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) serves to make matters more fractious. Charlie shows disturbing attentiveness towards India, who rejects his overtures of friendship. In quick succession the housekeeper and a relative go missing, both of whom knew something of Charlie’s history. Then India discovers the housekeeper’s body in the freezer.


And so parts of this play out like a standard thriller, if a fairly twisted one in terms of untoward familial relations (no surprise, coming from the director of Oldboy). The scene where Charlie confronts Aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) could come straight out any slasher movie, complete with a rundown motel as backdrop (the grime she encounters in her room is almost visceral, so used is she to a more comfortable lifestyle). When India visits the basement, it’s a dark, foreboding environment liable to contain a bogeyman. The school bullying she endures is the only plot thread to break through the claustrophobia of the family home, but even that is heavy with the threat of violence and violation.


When Charlie appears in the woods, as if by magic, to kill the boy attempting to rape India, Park allows it play out in a fairly methodical fashion. Bad things always happen in woods. Even the timely arrival of Charlie is the stuff of Hollywood clichés, if lent an unsettling symbiotic quality by the recognition between the two. It’s only afterwards that the scene, replaying through India’s mind as she showers off the mud and blood, takes on an extraordinary quality. What begins with a girl reliving a brutal attack becomes one of autoerotic ecstasy as she admits her arousal at Charlie’s murderous impulses.


We follow India’s viewpoint throughout, so we are encouraged to identify with her withdrawn yet distinctive gaze. One gets the impression that Miller is a keen follower of Dexter, since the childhood flashbacks strongly echo that series ; India’s father perceives her impulses and trains her accordingly. Of course here there is the dual purpose of making her a hunter, to prepare for any eventuality involving her uncle.


So much of the film is the stuff of familiar plot mechanics and clichés that it really shouldn’t work as well as it does. Charlie as a murderous child isn’t exactly knew, and the sudden revelation of where Charlie was this entire time works entirely because of the flourish Park lends it. And his release on India’s 18th birthday recalls the time-coded banality of Michael Myers, playing up the horror tropes. When India asks, “I’m curious about what happened to Jonathan” we segue into a full account; this is Miller opting for the full Monty rather than subtle hints and unravelling. Sot too, certain developments don’t invite close scrutiny (he has remained in a mental hospital all this time but is remarkably capable, be it in the kitchen or sexcapades with Evelyn).


Park perhaps overuses the reflective flashbacks but tonally it is enriching. Stoker is a feast of imagery, pulling us into India’s thought processes; painting a vase in art class, she depicts the pattern inside, rather than the still life itself. Having stabbed a school bully with a pencil, India later sharpens it in a peel of crimson shards. The piano duet with Charlie is stunningly depicted, as India reaches a euphoric state (they play a piece by Phillip Glass, who was originally set to provide the whole soundtrack). Like her uncle, we have learnt that India doesn’t like to be touched, making the moment even more powerful (there may be a suggestion that she is on the autistic spectrum, but this is really secondary to her primary motivation of self-actualisation). Combing Evelyn’s hair, the camera trains down and dissolves seamlessly into a field of tall grass as India recalls a hunting expedition with he father. Then there’s the incredibly unsubtle symbolism of a spider crawling up her thigh and Charlie unfurling his belt as if in prelude to a sexual encounter (Park’s film persistently teeters on the brink of blackly comic absurdity).


At times Park brings the attentiveness to the microcosm we expect from Nicolas Roeg, but combined with the macabre dissonance of David Lynch. He’s unable to conjure the resonance of either, because the subject matter is so run-of-the-mill, but one cannot deny he milks the screenplay for every nuance and then some.  Yet, despite the more Grand Guignol aspects, he also tempers himself in a manner absent from Oldboy; this is about repressed emotions finding release, and Park restricting himself on that level serves the piece. The pacing and editing are astonishingly confident, flowing and ebbing or torrenting as appropriate. The sound work is similarly acute, with a fine score from Clint Mansell.


Park has cast his film well, but it’s Wasikowska who really stands out. Hers is a captivating performance, remote and delicate yet confident and intense. Her large dark eyes are a well of unknowable depths. Yet we identify with her, even as she unfurls herself as a fully-fledged psychopath in the final scene (featuring Ralph Brown, Danny from Withnail & I). This is the sort of role Winona Ryder would have given her eye teeth for back in day, and there’s a trace of Lydia from Beetlejuice in India’s brooding insightfulness. But I can’t imagine Ryder reaching the heights or depths Wasikowska explores here. Goode is good, although he announces himself as suspicious from his first scene; it serves to underline the tensions of a film that manages both incredible subtlety and a crashing lack of it. As for Kidman, Evelyn’s brittle insecurity (not as young as she was, jealous of her daughter and showing zero reserve in making her intentions towards Charlie known) seems like the perfect fit. Except that there’s never a trace of sympathy for her; perhaps this lop-sidedness is an intentional consequence of India’s point of view.


Stoker is no masterpiece. Its gothic potboiler roots are far too manifest. But Park has invested it with such style and warped beauty that it nearly escapes its limitations. And for Wasikowska, hitherto a very pretty but relatively unchallenged performer, this is an incredible calling card.

**** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Still got that nasty sinus problem, I see.

Bright Lights, Big City (1988)
(SPOILERS) A star’s quest to buck audience – and often studio – preconceptions is invariably a dangerous game. You can quickly flame out the very thing that made you an attractive prospect in the first place. Or you can plod on, entrenching yourself determinedly in a style that doesn’t suit you (Robert De Niro in most broad comedy, Bruce Willis in most straight drama). Michael J Fox wanted to be taken seriously – being adored for Family Ties, Back to the Future and, yes, Teen Wolf just wasn’t enough – and it took him three attempts to realise no one really wanted to come along with him on that journey, whether he was serviceable in those roles or not. Bright Lights, Big City arrived after the John Hughes teen wave had peaked and a more cautionary tone was being taken towards youthful 80s abandon. It’s major problem, however, is that it’s all cautionary; the excess never looks like it’s fun, even for those partaking.

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…