Family Ties, by David Bax
You know the cliche of the movie review that always starts with, “I laughed, I cried…”? Had you been looking at my face while I took in Stoker, the English language debut of acclaimed South Korean director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst), you may have seen a similarly varied, if more specific, range of emotions. I grinned like an idiot, I grimaced in horror, I shook my head in disbelief, I surprised myself with laughter.
Stoker‘s basic, Hitchockian premise might not seem likely to inspire all those reactions. On the day of her eighteenth birthday, India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) father dies. His funeral brings onto the scene India’s father’s brother, an Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) she never knew existed. After Charlie moves in, his past, his relationship with India’s mother (Nicole Kidman) and his intentions toward India herself come into question. It’s an intriguing but not entirely original plot. That is, until you add in Park’s gifts for beautifully rendered but sickening sadism as well as the curious fact that India and Charlie share the bizarre, apparently genetic trait of superhuman hearing.
Right from the start – in a series of out of context shots of India walking on a highway and then in field followed by a montage of her exploring her very wealthy family’s estate – Park and his longtime collaborator, director of photography Chung-hoon Chung establish a disorienting but captivating tone. The opening titles are accompanied by striking freeze-frames. A field behind the house contains four perfectly round boulders like giant, gray cue balls. An image of a large tree growing from the side of the hill is shot with the camera parallel to sea level so the tree extends nearly sideways across the screen. The effect is mildly hallucinogenic in the way that everything feels intensely real and unreal at the same time. Park’s daring attempt – and success – at carrying this atmosphere through the entire film is what makes Stoker so compelling and so great.
Feeding off of or into the hyperreality of the mise-en-scene are the people in the film. Everyone, particularly the three main characters, is possessed by heightened mannerism. They all enunciate and do everything with a calm but intense deliberateness. What’s even more delightfully confounding is that each character conceivably has a reason for a behaving that way. Maybe it’s because they are disconnected or maybe they’re in mourning or maybe they’re actually completely insane. Or it could be that it’s just an odd movie.
As mentioned, the family is extremely well-off. I also mentioned that this is Park’s first time making a film in the States. It almost makes perfect sense, actually, that it would take a foreign director to so precisely capture a particular version of Americana, in this case the wealthy New England Ivy-leaguer variety. There’s a fetishism to the focus on the grain of the wood on India’s father’s desk or the rich texture of Charlie’s obviously expensive canvas weekend bag. That bag even contains a pair of sunglasses that likely cost as much as my rent and that end up being a plot point. The life presented here is the kind you imagine The Talented Mr. Ripley‘s Dickie Greenleaf having lived before he split for Italy. It’s all gorgeous to look at and Park absolutely submerges the film in it.
In intentional contrast to that hand-stitched, retro familiarity is the film’s overriding and deep-sunk weirdness. It’s not just that weird things happen like the supernatural ability to hear whispers from a hundred yards away. And it’s not only weird in the way of being unconventional, which the relationships among this man, his brother’s widow and his niece aggressively are. The film is simply weird all the way down to its bones. It is both cohesive and completely unfathomable.
And it would fall apart in the hands of the wrong cast. Stoker is the kind of movie that works so well, it’s useless to imagine anyone else playing the parts. Wasikowska is one of the best young actors working today and Goode, who has always been reliable (see The Lookout if you haven’t done so already) exceeds even the high expectations his past work has set. Jacki Weaver is also spot on in a small role that is both comic and ominous. It’s Kidman, though, to whom my thoughts keep returning. Though her character is often unlikable and at odds with India, she may very well be the most recognizable, relatable and normal human being in the film. There’s a way to interpret Stoker so that Kidman’s character is actually the real, secret lead and the story is really about her. It’s a lot of weight to put on an actor’s shoulders and, in what’s probably her best performance since Dogville ten years ago, she carries it flawlessly.
As someone who doesn’t take such things lightly, I should let you know that Stoker contains violence that is unsettling and gruesome in a way that goes beyond the splatter of blood, although that definitely happens too. It’s not an action movie, like The Raid: Redemption, that’s filled with violence throughout, though. In terms of percentage of screentime, there’s relatively little of it. It’s more about the quality of violence than the quantity.
Despite that, however, perhaps the most unexpected element of Stoker is that, once the whole thing is over, it turns out to be a rather warmhearted film about family. As strange as the Stokers are, the film’s message is ultimately a positive one about the bonds of blood, for good or for ill. That may be difficult to believe after everything I’ve described but that unbelievable quality is integral to the film’s beauty. It’s what makes Stoker easily the best film I’ve seen in 2013 so far.