Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Stoker (2013) – Review

Review: Stoker is an artistic and twisted character piece. The film is about India a young woman who is an outsider within her own surroundings, but very close to her father. Then, her father dies suddenly in a car accident and India finds herself alone. However, a mysterious uncle, Charlie, shows up wanting to be in her life. She knows that there is something not right about him, but instead of being afraid she finds herself drawn to him.

Making his English-language film debut, Korean auteur Chan-wook Park brings almost an abrasive style to Stoker. The film is incredibly stylized with the use of sound and his kinetic camera playing a vital role. The sound is exaggerated to illustrate that India is a little weird and alone – she hears things and sees things that others do not. The use of sound also creates sort of an off-putting sensation within the viewer, as things do not sound as expected. Park does this to put the viewer on edge, making his narrative tension more affecting while creating an overall atmosphere of strangeness/creepiness for the film (and viewing experience).

Park’s camera/framing is constantly playing with both the characters and the viewer – setting up scene dynamics, creating tension, and otherwise rendering how the audience interacts with the narrative. The camera is often put in the perspective of one of the characters (mostly India and Charlie) giving the audience their POV. This is done in such a way as to show the voyeuristic aspect of the relationship that is developing between India and Charlie. Their exchanges start out as merely looks, accelerating from there to darker and more twisted places.

The editing also plays an important role in the film’s artistic style. Park uses flashes of images to evoke perceptions in the audience of what the character is feeling or thinking. The editing is used in its most basic form (what Eisenstein called montage) – juxtaposing two images to elicit an emotion in the audience. Hollywood filmmaking often tries to make editing feel seamless to the extent that viewers do not even notice it – but with Stoker, Park very much wants the audience to react to the contrast of images being put together.

In addition to Park’s aggressive editing, framing, lighting, use of sound, and camera moves, he also arranges the narrative in a manner to combatively interact with the viewer. He shows the audience something, and then twists it to reveal something else – preying on their expectations. This heightens the mystery and tension within the film, making the truth’s disclosure very compelling. For the most part, the film is told in a linear fashion, but Park will revisit moments to provide more information, twisting and warping the audience’s persecution – juxtaposing expectation with reality.

The narrative is also developed very slowly, as Park devotes a sizable amount of time to small character moments early in the film. He wants India to seem strange, but secretly very strong – and, Charlie to seem perfectly quaffed, but secretly off kilter. He also wants to develop these elements slowly so that the tension builds while also keeping an air of mystery to the story.

Thematically, Park does some interesting things as well. For example, he uses a spider to represent Charlie. The spider crawls onto India, and she does not seem to mind – even inviting it to climb higher up her leg. This expresses her intimate fascination with him, even though he is a predator (and a spider is something that people would normally find repulsive or be afraid of).

However, this abrasive style that Park imposes upon the narrative mixed with the slow pacing bogs the film down a bit. It takes a while to really get into the meat of the story. Once things get going, the narrative is very compelling, but it just takes too long for that to happen. And, by then, Park has probably lost a portion of his audience. As aesthetically enthralling as the film is, the slow pacing as a result of the early stylistic choice does hurt the overall film.

The darker, sexual, and more twisted elements – often found in Park’s work – may not appeal to all viewers as well.

The slow pacing does undermine Stoker considerably, but even so it is an artistically brilliant film with sure masterful direction and wonderful performances. It is a thriller that does not rely on action and other cheap tricks; rather, it builds tension through the slow cat and mouse game between India and Charlie (much like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt – which this seems to be influenced by). For those willing to invest in the characters and embrace the style, the experience is rewarding.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Chan-wook Park’s films all have a very aesthetically interesting style and edginess to them. However, with Stoker, he seems to have gone to more of an artistic place putting the aesthetics somewhat above the narrative. This works and does not work. As stated in the review, the film develops too slowly, but every visual is fantastic. Plus, the overall aesthetic creates this ambiance of creepiness and tension that greatly benefits the narrative and might have been lost had things progressed quicker or if the story had been told in a more standardized manner. In this way, the film is both a directorial masterwork and failure at the same time, because while the artistic aspects do make the film more fascinating and grander on a more sophisticated level (the story is greatly elevated by Park’s stylistic choices) they also take the viewer out of the story to some extent. Pacing is maybe the most important element in structuring a great narrative (and notoriously difficult to get right in a character piece, rather than something driven by the story). When a film feels slow the audience’s attention drifts away (maybe never to fully return – and then what is the point of all the artistic choices if the audience is not engaged).

Clint Mansell’s score is very good. It fits the tone of the film very well – it is not really a horror film, but Park seems to want the tone to feel like it is and thereby heighten the tension. Mansell’s work does this brilliantly (here is a good example). The music also feels a bit off – like the characters. Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography is beautiful. The visuals of the film are impeccable. The color palette that Chung, Park and production designer Therese DePrez use fits the feel of the narrative (being toned down colors: white, black, grey, brown, etc.), which allows Charlie to stand out much more in his bright sweaters. The production design overall is also wonderful. DePrez gives the visuals an American Gothic look to match the tone. India’s world (the house and grounds) also seem very out of touch with the world around it – paralleling the character.

Even with all the substance that Park brings to the film with his style, this is a piece that would not work at all without strong performances (because after all it is character driven). Jacki Weaver and Phyllis Somerville are good in small roles, but really this film rests with its three leads. Nicole Kidman plays India’s mother Evelyn, who comes across as sort of an archetypal ‘evil stepmother’ even though she is India’s biological mother and deeply wants to have a meaningful relationship with her daughter, only one never developed, so she feels like an outsider burdened with a child when her husband dies. Kidman is both antagonistic and sympathetic (something very hard to pull off). It is her most compelling work since The Hours. Matthew Goode plays Charlie as seemingly mild mannered, but also extremely intense (his glare is menacing). He seems cut out of a chic East Coast men’s leisure catalogue – perfectly put together – but again Goode has such a edge to his performance as if there is something chaotic and dark just bubbling under the surface. It is definitely a breakthrough performance for him. Mia Wasikowska plays India as sort of your typical weird outsider school girl (a bit like Wednesday from The Adams Family, but not as goth-looking), but what is interesting about her performance is that there is not even a hint of aspiration for something more. She is completely content with who she is. However, when Charlie arrives, he awakens something within her, something that she fully embraces. In many ways, this is also sort of a coming-of-age narrative for India. Wasikowska envelops herself in the character not shying away from the more thematically twisted and darker material. It is another great performance from this rising star.

Summary & score: Stoker is for the most part an aesthetically magnificent stylish thriller, but its pacing problems (and to some extent its style) also debilitate its overall effectiveness. 7/10 

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