India Stoker’s father is killed in a car accident on her 18th birthday. She’s already a surly teenager locked in perma-conflict with her appearances-obsessed mother. Now she’s also grief-stricken while her childish mother attempts to get her to be pleasant for the funeral guests. One of those guests turns out to be an uncle she never knew she had. He’s a younger, handsomer version of her father and he basically moves right in. He’s a charmer, and may even be a killer.
Park Chan Wook’s new film, Stoker, is a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s early masterpiece, Shadow of a Doubt, although this one gets a lot a darker. It’s a psychological thriller in the old-school mode: who’s crazy and where does evil come from and what feeds it and why is it so often tangled up with sex and love? But where Shadow of a Doubt let its creeping menace enter into the pleasantest of 50’s Norman Rockwell American towns, Stoker is not so convinced that darkness doesn’t already lie everywhere, waiting for some evil entrepeneur to come along and mine it. The Stokers are quite wealthy, but nobody seems to dust the basement.
This unhealthy atmosphere, with murderous tensions woven into the fabric of every day life, is so sumptuously rendered that despite the plot similarities to Shadow of a Doubt, the film feels more like Hitchcock’s other masterpiece, Vertigo, that voluptuous collage of pure cinema, of colour, lighting, music and camerawork incarnating the essence of angry melancholy. This weird dichotomy (a simple overcoming-the-monster tale vs a complicated existential take on longing and evil) really hinders the movie: on the one hand it’s too slow to be a thriller, and on the other it’s too pulpy to be an art film about dysfunctional family. But as miscalculated enterprises go, this might be the most worthy ever. You shouldn’t make a movie like this, but if you have to, here’s how to do it!
I happen to believe that Park Chan Wook is among the finest living artists. His vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, OldBoy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) and its miraculous antidote (Thirst) are special works of art. He’s in the company of Euripides, Shakespeare, Beethoven and Dickens. Brilliant refinement of technique at the service of raw passion. That said, he’s made at least one terrible film (I’m a Cyborg), so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie, his first in English, especially because it stars Nicole Kidman (who’s getting harder and harder to take seriously) and Matthew Goode (who I thought was the uninteresting pop star, but that’s the Good without the e.)
Turns out they aren’t the problem; they’re both quite good! Kidman plays the boozey, somewhat silly mom, never loved enough by her husband and her daughter, unsure of what to do with her role(s) as rich-architect’s-wife and mother-of-a-sensitive-child. Of course, she sees in handsome Uncle Charlie a chance to win some overdue love for herself.
Matthew Goode does a superb job of being a charming creep. Perhaps he is one in real life! And also a superb job when the veneer comes down and we see the needy child underneath. A more skilled actor would have been able to give glimpses of each side of the character around the edges of the other side, but Goode can’t really do that, can’t really let us see how the monster grew out of the wounded child. It’s a very effecting performance and the camera loves him.
Unfortunately, the camera loves everything in this movie a little too much: the way a brush moves through hair, the way a daddy-long-legs crawls up a stocking, the way a lit phone-booth in a dark motel parking lot steams up when someone is being strangled to death in it. It’s sort of a problem, isn’t it, when blood splatter is so so so pretty? How are you supposed to feel? This movie is sumptuous—the music, the camera angles, the cinematography, the editing—its as colourful and languid as a Mahler Symphony slow movement. A part of me resented that—as if the movie were a high-budget TV commercial for nihilism. Malignant narcissism has never looked so good. Evil as a Lexus, sleek, shiny, powerful and GORGEOUS!
The centre of the picture is a young girl turning into a woman within this disturbed family. Playing India is Mia Wasikowska, a young actress who’s impressed me with everything she’s been in, and this is her best role yet. She’s more complicated than the other characters. It’s hard to say whether Uncle Charlie is teaching her to be evil—it’s not giving too much of the plot away to say that she is drawn to his dark side and appears poised to be become his—or whether she’s been disturbed from the beginning, due to the household tensions she was brought up in, or worse—disturbed from even earlier, from her genetics. Uncle Bad Seed and Niece Bad Seed. Its also even more complicated than that, because she might be something of a good person. It’s hard to say. She gives us both. She may be a sensitive soul in a terrible world. Her school life is, if anything, even worse than her family life—she is bullied and sexually harassed. And again, it’s even more complicated than that, because there are moments that hint that some of what we’ve seen on screen is her fantasy only. She might be crazy, not just good and/or bad.
Wasikowsa runs with it all despite the confusion. Every sulky eye roll is joined by a tentative reaching out for love. Every pulling back in disgust is joined by a leaning forward in longing. Every rigid dead-eyed stare is joined by a sensual crossing or uncrossing of the legs. There isn’t a frame in the film where she isn’t doing opposite things at once, some awkwardly, some skillfully, all perfectly in character. If the film works at all (and it almost does!—at the beginning I was thinking it wasn’t, and by the end I was thinking that it was—) it’s because she pulls you into it. She’s the raw heart of this highly stylized artifice.
So: there are a lot of good things in this movie—it really is gorgeous, a feast for the eyes and ears, the acting is truly disturbing in the best ways, the story is a good one with a real plot to it, and its subject is an important one. But those pieces don’t fit together in a satisfying way—the gorgeousness slows the plot down (imagine a 90 minute Hitchcock thriller morphed with a 3 hour National Geographic Special,) the plot cheapens the subject (imagine a philosophical tome on the nature of evil but with pesky sheriffs,) and the whole enterprise, despite its originality of execution seems embalmed from the opening sequence. And there’s the problem: you can’t generate suspense if everyone and everything’s already dead, you can’t brew up worry about the arrival in town of a charming psychopath if the town he’s come to menace is charming-psychopath-ville, and you can’t have your blood splatter be cruel and quaint at the same time. Not even Park Chan Wook. Or at least, not yet.