Two Movie Habit favorites have come together in a surprising collaboration.
Chan-wook Park, the South Korean director of Oldboy has come to America to direct his first English-language film, the macabre thriller Stoker. Wentworth Miller — known well to Movie Habit readers for his stop in Denver a decade ago — takes his first screenwriting credit for the script.
R for disturbing violent and sexual content
Mia Wasikowsky (recently seen in Cloud Atlas) plays India, a sullen teen mourning at the funeral of her father. A long forgotten uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), has turned up and takes an interest in his brother’s family. India’s mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), unnaturally cheerful, overcomes her grief rather quickly, especially when Charlie gives his attention to her.
There is less plot than mood in Stoker. The film exudes a sense of dread and wrongness. Some early examples: A spider crawls unnoticed up India’s stockings. She breaks the shell of her boiled egg by rolling it slowly on the table, next to her ear. Park’s soundtrack picks up every little crack and amplifies it like a pet peeve.
India had learned to shoot from her father (Dermont Mulroney), and he stuffed all of her kills, which adorn the house — a southern mansion on a plot of lush green land. The film always seems dark, as if a heavy, damp mist were always muting the sun.
The stylized performances make the film feel off, too. Park seems to take India’s point of view of the adults in her life. Kidman seems a bit like a Stepford wife, while Goode has robotic politeness and plasticky good looks that betray no recognizable “type” — is he a sociopath or a prude? Or is he like Norman Bates, a little bit of both? Only Aunt Jen (Jacki Weaver, who played a disturbing mother in Animal Kingdom), seems to notice that things are off. She offers India a lifeline out of the creepshow, should she choose to take it.
But man cannot live by mood alone, and after maybe 40 minutes, Park crosses the Rubicon, and plot developments take over. You won’t be surprised that there are betrayals, murders, and dark family secrets revealed.
Park is a masterful director and editor. There are many scenes of tension, carefully built through lighting, framing, and pacing. Park quotes Hitchcock liberally (I’d add “unnecessarily” since Park seems capable of making an audience wince without any help from Hitch).
And yet, somehow, Stoker fails to satisfy. The plot culminates in several reveals, but they mostly add up to a “so what.” And the film’s coda sends its sanest character off on an adventure that is nonsensical and self-defeating — maybe to illustrate she’s not so sane after all, but that contradicts the impression I had of her up until then.
So Stoker is a strong film, right up until then end. I still like Park and wish Miller the best, but I have to say their collaboration didn’t entirely work. See it if you like a good moody horror/thriller, but come for the atmosphere, not the plot, and perhaps you’ll like it better than I did.