Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2013


Friendly persuasion

A charming, mysterious uncle brings out the worst in his familial ingenue in Chan-wook Park's triumphant stateside debut, 'Stoker'

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Chan-wook Park
Screenplay: Wentworth Miller
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Alden Ehrenreich and Phyllis Somerville
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

I'm not sure there's a more playful director around than Chan-wook Park. It's one of the things that transforms his work from would-be nihilistic fantasies into loony, macabre pseudo-comedies. Does that make them any less perverse? No, but it certainly makes the perversity a lot more fun.

His English-language debut, Stoker, lives like a memory, or a dream, in that uncanny way sights, sounds and smells attach to one another and wrap themselves around your consciousness, one image drawing you instinctively to the next, one piece of music bringing you back to the same moment again and again and again. The film is built on those kinds of visual and aural connections, and Park weaves them together like a virtuoso at work, transforming what very well could have been a bad movie into a deliciously twisted piece of theatre.

Of the absurd variety, of course. You couldn't do anything very interesting with this material - murder as a sexual fantasy, incestuous flirting, insanity and psychopathy - without a sense of humor, and Park is certainly a most distinguished gentleman in that category. He makes that point emphatically clear in Stoker, which at times plays like an uncomfortable comedy of manners, and at others like a morbid erotic thriller, complete with ludicrously blatant double entendres. But the comedy is even clearer from a big-picture perspective. On its face, the film is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl, only it so happens that she's coming of age as something of a murderous psychopath - thanks in no small part to the arrival of her mysterious and charming uncle.

What are you supposed to do with that premise? Take it seriously? Or exploit it for all its lurid and colorful potential? Needless to say, Park chooses the latter strategy, and the result is a twisted, wicked, hilarious comic book of a movie. None of this should be a surprise to anyone who saw all the absurdity and humor that Park got out of his masterful Greek tragedy (or tragicomedy?) Oldboy, my choice as the best film of 2005. Stoker also bears some resemblance to his underrated 2007 effort I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK, about a mentally disturbed teenage girl coming of age in an asylum.

This time around, the girl in question - the virginal India, played with mesmerizing focus by Mia Wasikowska - isn't in an asylum, but she might as well be. She rarely speaks to anyone, either aloof or contemptuous of the world around her, preferring to be alone almost all the time, eternally suspicious - a state of mind that, we discover, is something of a cover for a deeply disturbed sense of curiosity.

Her well-to-do home is more of an icy chamber in the presence of her cold and superficial mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who offers neither motherhood nor any sense of human warmth. Her husband - India's father - has just died in a car accident, an event that has made India even more withdrawn. She and her dad (Dermot Mulroney) were very close, in contrast to her more adversarial relationship with her mother.

And then along comes Charlie. Uncle Charlie, that is - the uncle India never knew she had. The uncle, finely groomed and dressed in dapper yellows and greens, who shows up just in time to witness his brother's funeral from afar, back stateside after - apparently - years as a globetrotting fortune-hunter.

The tenor of the household changes immediately upon his arrival. India notices it (she notices everything - hears, sees, senses better than pretty much anyone else can), but can't quite put her finger on what it is. Evelyn notices it, but that doesn't stop her from putting the moves on her erstwhile brother-in-law, who reminds her of her husband as a younger man, giving her a chance at fulfilling a sort of pathetic youthful fantasy.

But the person who makes Charlie's presence seem most conspicuous is India's great aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), who seems palpably frightened from the moment she walks in the door. The ensuing scenes - the dynamic between Charlie and Gwendolyn, each one reacting to the other (be it with choice words or a piercing, threatening stare) - are among the film's best, affirming its stature as a great piece of darkly comedic suspense.

Eventually a kinship of sorts blooms between Charlie and India, and it's a fascinating spectacle to see the push-and-pull between the two - India tenuously resisting the dark corners of her psyche she's being led down. (The two also share - in the form of a duet on the household piano - what is probably the best non-sex sex scene I've encountered since a certain knife-throwing sequence in Patrice Leconte's Girl on the Bridge.)

As great as Wasikowska is, what's really essential to the film's key scenes is the performance of Matthew Goode. Generating this kind of sly, unblinking, sociopathic charm is a demanding task, but absolutely necessary to the central dynamic at the heart of Stoker. As played by Goode (who was also terrific in Match Point and The Lookout), Uncle Charlie is a hypnotic figure, as calm and graceful as he is stone-cold evil.

While both his performance and the movie itself are thrilling in their own ways, it's difficult to characterize Stoker as a "thriller," if only because of the implications that term has. If you require a "thriller" whose pieces all come together perfectly and whose character motivations are all clear . . . well, you're a person who lacks imagination. There is a place for that kind of rigid adherence to logic, but Stoker is not that place. This is a dreamlike Gothic fantasy in the guise of a thriller.

On paper, I can imagine Wentworth Miller's script playing more traditionally. But I can also imagine, in that scenario, the film coming across much worse. This is one of my favorite examples of material that could otherwise have been a silly mess transformed into something better simply by brilliant filmmaking. Consider Philip Noyce's skilled craftsmanship overcoming the genuinely idiotic events and character behavior in Dead Calm. Or Roman Polanski's pitch-perfect work on The Ghost Writer (whose silly bookstore-set climax puts its story in Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys territory).

Now we have Stoker, which is fundamentally a very silly, maybe even bad movie (sort of a shallow take on Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt), but one I enjoyed almost every second of. Park is the primary reason. The way his intuitive sense of composition and editing evokes an unending stream of thoughts, implications, desires and emotions is a rare ability. Simply watching him at work is a pleasure.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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