|Released:||Friday, March 1, 2013|
|Studio:||Fox Searchlight Pictures|
|Rating:||Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.|
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) was not prepared to lose her father and best friend Richard (Dermot Mulroney) in a tragic auto accident. The solitude of her woodsy family estate, the peace of her tranquil town, and the unspoken somberness of her home life are suddenly upended by not only this mysterious accident, but by the sudden arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed. When Charlie moves in with her and her emotionally unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), India thinks the void left by her father's death is finally being filled by his closet bloodline. Soon after his arrival, India comes to suspect that this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives. Yet instead of feeling outrage or horror, this friendless young woman becomes increasingly infatuated with him.
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Stoker Blu-ray Review
A "stoker," for those of you who don't know, is someone who adds fuel to a fire. Gets it roaring, heated up, feeding the flames. This is the underlying metaphor of Stoker, a twisted coming-of-age thriller about a morbid teenaged girl whose inner appetites—sexual and otherwise—are fed by a charismatic long-lost uncle who arrives suddenly in her life. To get further use out of the analogy, the film—written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller and helmed by Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, making his English-language debut—has stoked its share of controversy, with critics and audiences divided on whether it's a garish, style-over-substance misfire or a gorgeous and deeply unsettling example of modern Gothic Romanticism.
As with all art, it comes down to perspective. This is a film that requires you to be in a certain head-space as a viewer. Part of that is knowing up front that Stoker doesn't fit tidily into any one genre. It has horror elements, familial melodrama, and off-kilter romance, but the best possible way to describe it is that this is a foremost a Park Chan-wook film in tone—violent and elegant in equal measure—albeit one filtered through the respective aesthetics of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, part putting-the-pieces-together mystery/suspense movie, and part fractured surrealist nightmare about family, obsession, and female sexuality.
A clear inspiration for the film is Hitchcock's earliest masterpiece, Shadow of a Doubt, which also features a young girl's interactions with her absentee uncle, Charlie, a serial killer on the run from the law. The uncle in Stoker—Watchmen's handsome Matthew Goode, putting out some serious Anthony Perkins vibes—is likewise named Charlie, and he first shows up as a silhouette on a hillside overlooking the funeral of his brother, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), a wealthy architect who has recently died in a fiery and suspicious car accident. No one is exactly sure what Charlie does or where he's been for the past two decades—there are whispers of archeological digs and gold hunting, Europe and Indonesia—but he's charming and worldly and immediately ingratiates himself with his late brother's wife, Evie, played by Nicole Kidman in another of her beautiful-but-icy- and-maybe-soulless roles, somewhere between her parts in The Stepford Wives and Eyes Wide Shut.
Evie harbors some latent resentments toward her dead husband; namely, that he spent too much time away from home bird hunting with their living illustration of a daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska), a broodingly detached eighteen-year-old goth girl who claims to have heightened senses of hearing and sight. She's the sort of socially aloof oddball who doesn't seem to mind when a spider crawls up her leg and under her skirt. She runs barefoot through the woods in naught but a nightgown. She rolls a hardboiled egg under her palm on the kitchen table just to luxuriate in the sounds of the cracking shell. She's weird, to put it mildly.
She's also extremely wary of her uncle, whose very existence she was unaware of until his arrival. Now that he's moved in with them, an uneasy mood has settled over the perfectly set-dressed east coast mansion where the film is predominantly set. Evie and Charlie carry on like young lovers, taking convertible rides and dancing in the living room to Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra's "Summer Wine." A maid (Phillis Somerville) goes missing and an old aunt (Jacki Weaver) who drops by to visit seems disturbed by Charlie's presence. Clearly, there's more to the situation—and more to Charlie —than meets the eye, and we're gradually clued in to his real motives and given flashback revelations about the family's swept-under-the-rug past. The "mystery" is actually the film's most ineffective element; several intriguing possibilities are implied, but when all is laid bare, the backstory is disappointingly typical, bordering on cliche.
Stoker is much better when it confines itself—as it thankfully does for most of the runtime—to the tense, erotically charged present, particularly the bizarre love triangle of Charlie, India, and her mom. India is on the proverbial cusp of womanhood, and the film throbs with subtle and not-so-subtle sexual imagery. (Think Hitchcock's trains, going in and out of tunnels.) A blood-covered pencil tip. Deep red wine drunk from vulvic glasses. The visual double-entendre of India getting wet in a sudden downpour. All of this climaxes, so to speak, in an intense shower scene where orgasm and violent death are uncomfortably intercut, revealing the true extent of India's morbid obsessions. This is a film about awakening—of lust and possibly evil—and the final question is what India will do with her newfound carnal knowledge.
Park Chan-wook's filmmaking here is extremely particular; that is, everything about Stoker feels highly intentional and slightly exaggerated. The operatic camera movements. India's doll-like outfits. The distinct color palette of the costumes and sets. Most arresting—and potentially off-putting for some—is the slow, deliberate way that the actors speak. This could possibly be the outcome of a director who knows little English himself, but it seems more purposeful than that, adding to the film's dreamy, off, ever-so-unreal atmosphere. Lynch fans will note a distinct Twin Peaks influence. To give but one example, India, at one point rendezvous with a leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding high school boy (Alden Ehrenreich ) outside of a neon-lit 1950s-style diner. They then go off together into a midnight copse of ominous-looking trees. What they find there is every bit as disturbing as a dancing, backwards-talking little person.
With it becoming increasingly unusual to see movies—especially lower-budgeted movies—shot on film, it's a real pleasure to view Stoker's gorgeous 1080p/AVC-encoded 35mm transfer, which looks vivid and organic. A fine grain structure is visible throughout and there are no obvious manipulations to the image. The film is aurally exceptional too. In one of the earliest lines, India says, "My ears hear things that others cannot hear," and that claim is certainly amplified in Stoker's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, which features lots of carefully wrought sound design. Special Features include: Deleted Scenes, a Making-Of Documentary, Photography Gallery, Stills from the London premeire, The Making of the Limited Edition Poster, Mysterious Characters, Director's Vision, Designing the Look, Creating the Music, Red Carpet Footage, "Becomes the Color" Performance by Emily Wells, Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots, and a Sneak Peek.
From the reaction it's gotten, Stoker seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair, with those who appreciate David Lynch-style surrealism drawn in by director Park Chan-wook's appropriation of the form, while others—perhaps expecting a more straightforward horror-thriller—have been put off for the very same reason. This is an odd and particular film, and while it does have some disappointing shortcomings—like a backstory that ultimately isn't as interesting as some of the possibilities hinted at but not exploited in the narrative—it's a must-see experience for fans of enigmatic movies that don't fit in the usual genre boxes. Highly recommended for anyone whose interests span Hitchcock, Lynch, and recent Korean cinema.
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