Auteurism is something I crave in my cinema. Movies are made by large groups of people both behind the camera and in front of it, and the fact that one person’s (or a small group’s) vision can come through so sharply is nothing short of astounding. Especially when you consider all the factors that could prevent such things — not just broad things like suits, focus groups, demanding actors but even more specific things like a foreign director making a movie in Hollywood. We saw The Last Stand bring Kim Ji-Woon to the states without embarrassment, not because he made a great Kim Ji-Woon film, but because he made an entertaining action flick. I was really worried about Stoker because I like Park Chan-Wook a whole lot more than I like Kim Ji-Woon, and to have Park deliver weak sanitized Hollywood fare would be a goddamn travesty.
Turns out I didn’t have anything to worry about.
Boasting a script by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller (!?) Stoker offers a solid Hitchcockian backbone for Park to do his thing: Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) is dead, and his wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) are left to pick up the pieces. Mid-mourning, Richard’s mysterious little brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up after years of traveling the world and moves in to help the family out. Evelyn is charmed by the newcomer, but India and the people watching the movie are suspicious — especially as people around the family start disappearing.
Stoker is primarily a chamber piece, as a good majority of the film takes place in, on, or around the estate, giving the viewer a lot of time to spend with the characters. As India, Wasikowska straight kills it, playing an aloof, morbid teenager who doesn’t care much for people or being touched or spoken to or acknowledged. It’s an easy role to play too cartoonish, too ghostly, too inhuman — basically like a character in the average Tim Burton movie* — and because Park and Miller rarely let us into India, we have to rely on studying Wasikowska’s performance to figure out what’s going on in her head.
We learn that India is very much her father’s daughter, and Evelyn has no idea what to do with her own spawn, who seems so alien to her. Kidman is off-putting at first mostly because she suffers from the Uncanny Valley that occurs when an actor has too much plastic surgery. While at first it seems like she might have only been cast in this movie as a grab for that necessary evil known as “star power,” the fact that Kidman looks perpetually Photoshopped actually works for a film where her character feels so distanced from her family in their big expensive estate that the only thing to obsess over is the bliss of youth and the allure of the constant flow of housewife wine. Hardly a likeable character, but it’s a performance where the tragedy of a life wasted in stasis simmers beneath a plastic surface that eventually opens up and spews disdain. In other words, a Betty Draper character.
Meanwhile Matthew Goode delivers a delicious “Tony Perkins in Psycho” vibe, where he’s a handsome, charismatic dude, but one who exists very, very close to the border where “charming” meets “serial killer.” It’s a tough role, but Goode walks that line so incredibly well that we have our doubts about what he does or doesn’t do at night.
But above all we’re talking about a Park Chan-Wook movie and Stoker is a work that thankfully fits in nicely with the auteur’s filmography. His Vengeance Trilogy explored characters caught in an endless spiral of revenge, and Stoker is almost the opposite — what if people acted out of jealousy, obsession and even more base instincts? What if the whole damn system of family was rotten, including the people in it? People often stress the importance of family, but maybe it’s just an artificial construct like everything else, and shouldn’t exist if the people in it don’t fit together. Sometimes it might just be okay to break up the band.
The whole film is evocative beyond its plotting, with its recurring themes of bugs (in the classic Chan-Wook Park style of seemingly intentionally distracting CGI) as well as birds and shoes and crosscutting that begs the viewer to keep up — all amazingly shot by frequent Park collaborator Chung Chung-hoon. Chung and Park come up with some amazing cinematography ideas, where the camera circles around Goode’s waist as he removes his belt, following the belt as if it were a snake, heightening the intensity and anticipation of what he’s going to do with it.
Stoker is ultimately a film about emerging adulthood and feminine sexual awakening, with a vague, completely understated supernatural (for complete lack of a better word) bent. In the wrong hands — I could see late period Brian DePalma signing on for this script — Stoker would probably be an interesting, weird, but not-very-good movie, but the direction, cinematography and editing turn Stoker from a twisted potboiler into an effective first shot at bringing Park Chan-Wook’s particular brand of exhilarating feel-bad cinema to a whole new unsuspecting audience.
*Speaking of Burton, it’s funny that Wasikowska starred in his sequel to Alice in Wonderland, since both Alice and Stoker are about sexual awakening to some extent. I guess Wasikowska is going to be the go-to sexual awakening actress for a few years?