Stoker? Judge Gordon Sullivan barely even knew her.
Do not disturb the family.
There is a paradox around certain great creators: They're figures who are obviously important, who push their art form in new directions, but they can also be the people whose advances are hardest to assimilate. Picasso might be one of the greatest examples in the twentieth century; his work was obviously important and signaled a shift in painting, but how is it possible to be influenced by Picasso without lots of elongated figures and monochromatic colors? There are countless examples of this problem in cinema, but Alfred Hitchcock may be the most potent. His work obviously demonstrates a mastery of cinematic form, narrative suspense, and emotional tension—and yet his influence often leads to films that look like cheap imitations. Even a great director like Dario Argento can't make an homage to Hitchcock without producing a cheap copy of the original. With Stoker, Park Chan-wook (with the help of a screenplay by Wentworth Miller) has seemingly done the impossible, creating a film that feels indebted to Hitchcock without feeling like a slavish imitation. The fact that it is a wild, weird, and wonderful ride with an excellent Blu-ray release only makes the film more impressive.
Facts of the Case
India (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) has just lost her father, when her Uncle Charles (Matthew Goode, Watchmen) appears and decides to live with India and her mother (Nicole Kidman, The Golden Compass). That would be great, but she's never heard of Uncle Charlie before, and things start to get weird around the house.
The main reason that Stoker feels like a successful attempt at borrowing from Hitchcock is that it doesn't go for Hitchcock's "one picture, one genre" rule. Most of Hitch's films are thrillers, and aside from the occasional touch of light comedy tend to stick to that genre. Stoker has no such intentions. Its core is a thriller in the Hitchcock vein: Who is this Uncle Charlie and what does he have in store for the dysfunctional pair of India and her mother? Along the way, we also get a portrait of a family in melodramatic style. There's also a bit of misunderstood teen drama. That's just the narrative elements. Visually the film ranges from horror to stylish thriller and back again without ever feeling overwrought. It's hard to say too much more about these elements of the film without spoilers, so suffice it to say that Stoker is not a film that stays within generic conventions.
It's also a film filled with visual inventions. Park has been wowing international audiences with his seminal Vengeance Trilogy for a decade, and Stoker is his English-language debut. When inventive Asian directors make English-language debuts, we often see two big problems. The first is that in making the transition to American cinema, everything that made the director interesting in the first place is sanded off by studio filmmaking. That's not the case here. Certainly Stoker doesn't have the scope for some of Park's visual theatrics (like the famous tunnel fight of Oldboy), but working with a smaller canvas doesn't mean he's any less interesting. There are Gothic touches, odd camera angles, and visual doublings and symbolism galore for fans of the director to appreciate.
The other problem that plagues many directors with their English-language debut is the problem of acting. It's much harder to judge good performances in a non-native tongue. The problem is usually solved by having the director work on an action-heavy script that requires little dialogue and lots of stunt work (which is more of an international language). Not so with Stoker. Park solves the problem by hiring a trio of amazing actors as his leads. Mia Wasikowska is the center of everything here. She has to play the subtle shifts as her character discovers her sexuality and maturity, being both open to new experiences but wary of change. Nicole Kidman is excellent as India's mother, someone similarly (re)discovering her own sexuality while also dealing with the responsibilities of motherhood. Matthew Goode amps up the charm as Charlie. He could have stepped out of any of the last half a dozen decades, with a cool The Talented Mr. Ripley vibe that makes him both attractive and menacing. The supporting cast are excellent as well, but the majority of the movie is carried by these three.
Stoker (Blu-ray) is exactly what the film deserves. Shot on 35mm, this 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer preserves the rich, filmlike quality of the visuals. Detail in many shots is delightful, and colors are intentionally muted and cool. Black levels are consistent and deep, and no digital manipulation or compression artefacts are apparent. The film's audio is similarly well-represented. Stoker probably deserves to win ever sound award for the year. It's design is subtle and powerful, aiding character development and giving a strong sense of place. This DTS-HD 5.1 track shows that perfectly. Dialogue is always clean and clear, but it's the subtle sounds (like the shell of a hardboiled egg cracking) that really show the clarity and detail of the soundstage. Clint Mansell's score, which is itself subtle and moody, gets a lot of dynamic range as well.
Extras start off with a 28-minute making-of featurette that covers the gamut of info about the film, from script to production. Another set of featurettes includes interviews that were obviously conducted for the making-of featurette but focus on different aspects (like the poster). We also get 10 minutes of deleted scenes, two sets of still photos, 16 minutes of red carpet footage, a music video, and a trailer suite. A commentary from Wentworth Miller would have put this set over the edge, but what's here is good.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Stoker is a strange little movie. Self-consciously stylistic, it doesn't follow normal genre conventions nor offer any easy pleasures. I don't want to say too much in the way of spoiling the film, but it's also not a film that shies away from sexuality, and not the usual boy-meets-girl sexuality of most Hollywood affairs. It's relevant that the scribe of Secretary and Chloe (Erin Cressida Wilson) is listed as a contributing writer on the screenplay. That's not a problem for me, but I can see that kind of sexuality being a bit much for some folks.
Stoker will ultimately be a polarizing film, with some drawn to the bizarre world of the story and some repulsed. In either case the film is worth watching for fans of off-kilter thrillers as well as those who admire the actors or director. The excellence of the Stoker (Blu-ray) release makes rental or purchase easy to recommend.
Disturbing, but not guilty.
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