Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2013: Stoker

 For a long time this year, Stoker was the strongest contender for my favorite movie of 2013. It's a testament to the movies to come that anything could unseat it, and while I don't think you'd argue with what's to come, that shouldn't in any way diminish what Chan-wook Park (Park Chan-wook?) accomplished in his first English language feature. I still marvel at his ability to misdirect repeatedly, to such a degree that I was never quite certain where Stoker was going. The Cap'n watches a lot of movies, and I have a bad habit of figuring out where things are going well before they get there, so when not one but two movies this year had me guessing right up to the very end (Upstream Color was the other film - it's no coincidence I mentioned Park in yesterday's review), it was a very good year indeed.

 India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a bit reserved, to put it mildly; she prefers solitude, to be outside, and doesn't have much tolerance for her peers or her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The only person she really liked was her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), but he died very recently in a car accident, just before her eighteenth birthday. And yet, as was his tradition, Richard hid a present for her outside, but instead of a pair of shoes (as is normally the tradition), India finds a key inside. That's not the only surprise - after the funeral, she discovers Richard has a brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), who is quite insistent on moving in and even more intent on befriending his niece. India doesn't trust Charlie, but is strangely drawn to him, and Evelyn takes to his presence immediately. But Richard's estranged brother comes with his own baggage, and somehow anyone who wants to talk to them about Charlie disappears mysteriously. What is he really after?

  From the set up (and most of that is on the back of the box), I wouldn't blame you for feeling pretty confident knowing where Stoker is headed, but as is the case with almost all of Park's films, the synopsis is just a springboard to dive further into the psyches of the characters. Remember that Park's previous film, Thirst, can be boiled down to "a Catholic Priest struggles with his faith when he becomes a vampire," which in no way prepares you for the wickedly funny and often dark places he takes you. And then there's the Vengeance Trilogy - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance - all of which are more than the moniker would suggest. Fixed genres are not something that Park feels beholden to, much to all of our benefit(s). And yet, there's an inherent fear when a foreign director of such cult acclaim decides to transition to an English language film. The lingering memory of a Hard Target or a Mimic sticks with us. Maybe it's the language barrier, or maybe interference from the studio, but the shift almost always seems to be a bumpy one.

 So to my pleasant surprise, Stoker suffers from none of that. The screenplay, but Wentworth Miller (yeah, the guy from Prison Break) is well developed and takes left turns when you least expect them (let's just say that India figures out very quickly what Uncle Charlie's "secret" is, or one of them at least) and fits well into Park's propensity for the tragic. It's tricky to categorize Stoker: it's not exactly a thriller, nor is it really a drama. There are elements of horror, but Stoker is not a horror movie, much in the way that Thirst isn't really a horror movie either. Somehow, Park strikes a perfect tonal balance that keeps you off-guard, uncertain of what's going to happen next, and why.

 In some ways, Stoker reminds me of a Henri-Georges Clouzot film, although for the life of me I couldn't point out specifically why. Perhaps it's the tone, or the precision with which Park controls the camera (which always seems to be moving) to shift what you think you're seeing. While on the surface, Stoker appears to be a thriller that falls into the "mysterious relative who murders" trope, the film is really more of an exploration of India's budding sexuality, sometimes subtlety but at times rather bluntly (there are a few visual metaphors that couldn't possibly be taken to mean anything else). How the theme and narrative intertwine, and more importantly, how they play out, is the key to Stoker's success.

 Park also makes the most out his three leads, all of whom I hadn't thought much about in a while. After Watchmen, I'd mostly forgotten about Matthew Goode, and didn't realize that the limitations of playing Ozymandias didn't give me a fair representation of what he could do as an actor. Mia Wasikowska was a nice supporting part of Lawless, but I guess I still mostly associate her with Tim Burton's forgettable Alice in Wonderland. I'm not certain I can remember a Nicole Kidman movie I wanted to watch since Birth (to be fair, I haven't seen Rabbit Hole), and so I was coming in with (unfairly) middling impressions of the cast. Not to worry, as it turned out.

 Stoker is, without a doubt, Mia Wasikowska's film, from the first moment to the last, and India Stoker is a study in layers. There's so much we don't know about her that is slowly, deliberately revealed, that explains why she is at the beginning of the film. Some of it comes through flashbacks, but most of it Park reveals through dialogue and, later, action. The boys at high school are more than a little fixated on India, but like Mandy Lane in another genre twister, there's more than they bargained for behind the surface. The question is how does she react to what Charlie already seems to know? In what may be the first major turning point of Stoker, Park deliberately misleads you into thinking you're watching one sort of scene, only to reveal that it's nearly the opposite (I know it seems coy to keep dancing around spoilers, but you really should find out for yourself).

 There's more to Charlie than meets the eye, even if you think you have him figured out. That it takes nearly three quarters into the movie to find out what the key opens, where Charlie's been, and the deeply unsettling reason why is a testament to the deliberate nature of Miller's script and Park's direction. The final flashback that follows is haunting and quite unexpected, but informs what's to come for India and Evelyn, and the choices they'll have to make with respect to their visitor. The ending is satisfying, and inevitable, but still manages to catch you off guard, despite the fact that you've already seen part of it at the beginning of the film, a testament to how refreshingly off-guard Park can catch you.

 I'm still mightily impressed with Stoker and feel that from here on out any of the films mentioned are interchangeable as "favorite" of 2013. It really depends on what day it is, what I'm thinking about, and what mood I'm in. If you're in the mood for a slightly off-kilter film that doesn't need to fit into on particular category, or you're a Chan-wook Park fan that was on the fence, don't even hesitate to pick up Stoker. Go in not knowing much, and hopefully you'll have as much fun as I did watching the layers peel away.

 (interesting tidbit: Harmony Korine has a very small role as India's art teacher in the film, which is what led me to watch Spring Breakers shortly after I finished Stoker).

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