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

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…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I don’t need to be held together, I’m fine just floating through space like Andy.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Or, to give it its full subtitle, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Carrey’s in a contradictory place just now, on the one hand espousing his commitment to a spiritual path and enlightened/ing state, on the other being sued in respect of his ex-girlfriend’s suicide and accompanying allegations regarding his behaviour. That behaviour – in a professional context – and his place of consciousness are the focus of Jim & Andy, and an oft-repeated mantra (great for motivational speeches) that “I learned that you can fail at what you don’t love, so you may as well do what you love. There’s really no choice to be made”. The results are consequently necessarily contradictory, but always fascinating.

Nothing in the world can stop me now!

Doctor Who The Underwater Menace: Episode Three

Episode Three is pretty much 25 minutes of filler, revolving around a kidnap attempt on Zaroff and Sean encouraging the fish people to engage in industrial action. But, laughable (intentional or otherwise) as the plot mechanics may be, this is never dull. Smith keeps the action zipping along. She has limited space at her disposal, but ensures the action scenes are tightly shot and well-edited. This means that, even when the staging isn’t especially convincing (the crowded market square, all 30 feet of it, the fight between Jamie and Zaroff), it’s a million times better executed than any comparable studio action set piece from the Davison era that isn’t directed by Graeme Harper.

No, by the sky demon! I say no!

Doctor Who The Pirate Planet
I doubt Pennant Roberts, popular as he undoubtedly was with the cast, was anyone’s idea of a great Doctor Who director. Introduced to the show by Philip Hinchliffe – a rare less-than-sterling move – he made a classic story on paper (The Face of Evil) just pretty good, and proceeded to translate Robert Holmes’ satirical The Sun Makers merely functionally. When he returned to the show during the ‘80s, he was responsible for two entirely notorious productions, in qualitative terms. But The Pirate Planet is the story where his slipshod, rickety, make-do approach actually works… most of the time (look at the surviving footage of Shada, where there are long passages of straight narrative, and it’s evident Roberts wasn’t such a good fit). Douglas Adams script is so packed, both with plot and humour, that its energy is inbuilt; there’s no need to rely on a craftsman to imbue tension or pace. There is a caveat, of course: if your idea of Doctor Who requires a straig…

For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
(SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie would evidently have liked to make a Bond film as much as his former producer Matthew Vaughn, and either would undoubtedly add more spark to the franchise than current darling Sam Mendes (lush cinematography or no lush cinematography). While Vaughn brokered his fandom into a patchy but violent and vibrant original earlier this year (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and won considerable box office as a result, Ritchie picked up Steven Soderbergh’s discarded menu items and went with refashioning an existing property, one he had no yearning interest in. Sometimes that shows in the result, but mostly The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, playful exercise in period spyfare. As such, it’s a shame this looks destined to remain a one-time only outing.

Which isn’t to say there’s necessarily much else left to do with it (one can imagine desperate approaches like throwing them into the ‘70s a la Austin Powers and X-Men), but the amount of fun Ritchi…

You can’t be in England and not know the test score!

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
(SPOILERS) Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate UK-based picture, The Lady Vanishes can be comfortably paired with The 39 Steps as a co-progenitor of his larkier suspense formula (watch these two and then jump to North by Northwest and the through line is immediately obvious). Part of its great blessing is Hitchcock being handed a screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, latterly directors themselves, and knowing to make the most of the very funny dialogue, including arguably the picture’s greatest gift (well, other than Hitch himself): Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as ultimate English cricket enthusiasts – to the exclusion of all else – Charters and Caldicott.

This place sure isn’t like that one in Austria.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Brawl in Cell Block 99 is most definitely cut from the same cloth as writer-director-co-composer Craig S Zahler’s previous flick Bone Tomahawk: an inexorable, slow-burn suspenser that works equally well as a character drama. That is, when it isn’t revelling in sporadic bursts of ultraviolence, including a finale in a close-quartered pit of hell. If there’s nothing quite as repellent as that scene in Bone Tomahawk, it’s never less than evident that this self-professedchild of Fangoria” loves his grue. He also appears to have a predilection for, to use his own phraseology, less politically correct content.

This is how we do action in Uganda.

Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010)
Uganda’s first action movie”, Who Killed Captain Alex? is a cheerfully ultra-low budget, wholly amateur picture made by Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey. It’s the kind of thing you and your mates would make and (rightly) expect no one else to ever watch (aside from a few hundred hits on YouTube). But stick a frequently hilarious running commentary over the top from VJ (video joker) Emme, and it this home-ish move takes on something approaching the spoofy quality of What’s Up Tiger Lilly?