Chan−wook Park’s Hollywood debut thrills
Psychological thriller ‘Stoker’ proves successful in many cinematic areas
Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 09:03
“Stoker” is an exercise in pacing, simultaneously brief and deliberate. This psychological thriller walks a line between becoming a wholly American movie and maintaining the Korean heritage of director Chan−wook Park’s previous films. It is a coming−of−age story, a story about family and a character study. It is uncomfortable, beautifully shot and violent.
“Stoker” accomplishes a number of things in a span of 98 minutes, but not without neglecting certain elements. In the process, plot takes a backseat to style, and the result is a story that feels more like a palette for Park’s strengths as a director and the talent of the cast than a gripping narrative. Writer Wentworth Miller’s screenplay has hints of Hitchcock and plays with engaging themes, but the film is very much Park’s creation. Favoring stylistic exploration of the Stoker family microcosm was likely Park’s conscious decision, but it isn’t without consequence. The end product is fascinating, but not for everyone.
Park sets this precedent within the first minutes of the film. We are presented with a series of striking images overlaid with the protagonist’s cooly delivered opening monologue. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) describes her acute awareness of her environment and her obsessive attention to detail: “Small, faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me,” she says, mysteriously. Cinematographer Chung−hoon Chung makes a parallel statement with his camera: The film’s world is presented in the same way that India experiences it, with both visuals and audio that painstakingly document the setting and action. This is sometimes immersive — as during a scene where each of India’s sips of wine is audible — and sometimes heavy−handed, as in the case of a recurring computer−generated spider and its less−than−subtle role in the film’s presentation of sexuality.
But every instance in which the film oversteps is counteracted by a number of effective and powerful cinematic decisions. Park and Chung’s collaborative mastery of composition, lighting and the creation of indelible visuals is one of the strongest points of the film, especially where the style essentially is the content.
On the note of style, “Stoker” is a strange animal. India’s trademark statement, “I am not formed by things that are of myself alone,” is as much a commentary on her own history as it is the aesthetic of the movie itself. Park has commented in the past on his tendency to make genre films, but “Stoker” ties together elements that would otherwise seem disparate. The term Southern Gothic springs to mind immediately, as a consequence of both the film’s setting and its tone. Clint Mansell’s superb soundtrack helps to reinforce this with its sparse piano and anxious string arrangements. At the same time, Park brings his signature sleekness to the characters and the appearance of the film. India is accidentally stylish as the archetypal Goth girl, evoking Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams in “The Addams Family” (1991), while Charles (Matthew Goode) stands somewhere between the clean−cut brutality of “American Psycho” (2000)’s Christian Bale and the androgyny of David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976).
All of the characters in the Stoker family are magnetic and multidimensional, but the same cannot be said of the supporting roles. The scenes of India at school are almost embarrassing. The blonde bully senselessly harasses her with cringe−worthy sexual quips; the misfit clad in leather on a motorcycle seems to empathize with her. The cultural connections that can be drawn to the Stoker family are part of what makes them so entertaining to observe, but in the case of other characters, it merely makes them cliches.
At the heart of “Stoker” is a group of themes well explored by Park’s other work. While “Stoker” is his Hollywood debut, it was his 2003 thriller “Oldboy” that first drew international attention. The highlight of his Vengeance Trilogy, “Oldboy” was an achievement in its genre — visually stunning, brilliantly written, with a plot twist to put all of its American contemporaries to shame. “Stoker” carries its legacy of frank violence, disturbing eroticism and focus on revenge, but with a very different aesthetic.
While in many ways “Oldboy” was a stronger film than “Stoker” in terms of narrative, the latter’s thematic elements are more striking, especially alongside the talent onscreen. Matthew Goode, Mia Wakowsika and Nicole Kidman give performances that make their characters memorable, intriguing and terrifying. Coupled with the film’s atmosphere and Park’s distinctive and powerful direction, the result is an impressive amount of ability and innovation in every aspect of the film’s execution. We’re left with a thriller that’s clever, rich and captivating, but in many ways fails to become more than the sum of its parts.