Stoker's Production more captivating than the Story
Fans of Korean Director Chan-wook Park rejoiced last week, with the premiere of Stoker - his debut into American cinema. Park, of cult-classic Oldboy fame, brings his same storytelling approach to this cerebral thriller.
After the death of her father, India (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother (Nicole Kidman) share their home with India's Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) whom she did not know existed until her father's funeral. Charlie begins exhibiting unusual behavior - which is saying something, considering Mia and her mother aren't exactly normal themselves - and sparks Mia's curiosity, while, at the same time, has her maintain a distance from the uncle she barely knows.
The story, while highly entertaining, is nothing imaginatively inventive. Written by Wentworth Miller - yes, Michael from Prison Break - Stoker is a thriller revolving around a family drama. There are points during the film, where one can predict a character's actions or a future event. Even the high school bullies revert to the stereotypical cliche. What makes the film a must-see is Park's interpretation of it. His stylized directing and finesse attention to detail give this film, while not in the same caliber as Oldboy, his trademark stamp of morbidly creepy and sensational approach to story-telling.
The film maintains a chronological story-line, for the most part, but is packed with premeditated images that act as a prelude for things to come and a clue for things that have already occurred. The film begins with Wasikowska's character standing on the side of a road. Why she is there, we do not know but trust that Park will carefully navigate us back to that moment with added clarity.
As mentioned, the story is nothing original - it could have easily played out like the humdrum studio thriller we see too often, but the care that went into translating the story to screen is something to be admired. The sound design is so bizarrely brilliant; its unnatural approach to sound analysis breaks our conventional understanding of its use - it wakes us from our conformist reverie with staccato-like alarm that disrupts this pattern of thinking and begs us to pay close attention to the most seemingly miniscule detail. In one scene, we see India play the piano along to a metronome - a device used to help players stay in tempo - then go upstairs, while her uncle and mother are gone. As she goes through her uncle's belongings, we hear the metronome's loud metrical ticks echo loudly and ominously through the house; it mimmicks an accelerated heartbeat and adds to the anxiety and anticipation of her family's expected arrival before she can see what Charlie is hiding in his bag, (this scene, itself, is not entirely original, but why would I want to spoil the best parts?) This is aided by a more melodious score by Clint Mansell, which adequately captures the eerie mood and unexpected beauty of the film's dark nature.
The cinematography, by Chung-hoon Chung, also adds a bizarre beauty to the film. In fact, it's almost distracting in how much more attractive the image is than the story, we don't mind thinking we know where things are heading; we just want to see how it will visually play out.
This was also due to Park's framing of scenes. His employment of using the camera as a male gaze was reminiscent of Spanish Director Pedro Almodovar's heavy use of it in his films. Throughout Stoker, we see Wasikowska framed only at the feet, or a section of her body or face. This fetish framework works for the story and helps visually illustrate India's transformation in the film. The film is highly sexualized, both narratively and visually. Visually speaking, the sexual nature of the film lies in the hands of Park and how he forces this concept on to us. We don't often see its visceral disposition play out, but we construct the idea in our minds from Park's metaphorical representations.
Wasikowska's performance was quite the departure from the classy image she has maintained thus far in her career. She's no Alice in Wonderland here. India is moody, a bit unstable like her mother and, most certainly, unpredictable. Wasikowska leads this film with unprecedented confidence, for being such a young actress, and handles the heavy subject-matter like a pro. She plays well off Kidman, the definition of a pro, to give us a shattered mother-daughter relationship. India and her mother never got along, and Charlie's presence in the home only complicates their relationship. Kidman brings her A-game and a heated discussion adds for one of the most intense scenes in the film (watch here). Goode - while not in the same caliber as Kidman or even Wasikowska, as she has now proved - adequately fit the role of a creepy uncle. It was hard believing Goode had bad intentions behind those gorgeous blue eyes, but his performance most surely sufficed. His scenes with Wasikowska were especially captivating, filled with unpleasant moments of tension, which made it ironically pleasant to watch them act together.
The film also stars Jacki Weaver, Dermot Mulroney, Lucas Till, Phyllis Somerville, Harmony Korine (the director of Spring Breakers) and Alden Ehrenreich.
While not the most original thriller, Stoker manages the rare ability to captivate us from beginning to end. It's mesmerizing images and unusual, but effective use of sound, cinematography and other technical maneuvers I shamefully went without acknowledging, make this film a surreal and wonderful experience to sit through.
Stoker may not leave the same impression that Oldboy did, but its haunting images no doubt leave its mark well after the credits have rolled, leaving us staring at a white screen that bares no trace of its images that have now trespassed into our minds and continue to linger there.