Friday, March 1, 2013

Stoker: A Hypnotic Slice of America

I have a thing for foreign directors making movies about America. I am not American, but not only do I live in America, I've also been raised on a diet of American entertainment thanks to Hollywood's output both in the big and small screen. Even after moving to America and getting to experience it first-hand, I've retained my previous, imaginary, highly complex and media influenced image of America. One that despite being pure fantasy lives side-by-side with the actual thing. That is why I love it when foreign directors make movies about the United States. I may not love the movies. Take danish director Lars Von Trier (a man who has never set foot in America) as an example, I love Dogville, don't really care much for Melancholia, but I still enjoy watching them and relishing in the imaginary vision, which at its best is as accurate if not more interesting and telling than the actual thing. The latest foreign director to migrate to the U.S. is South Korea's Chan-wook Park. I am not a huge fan of Park (I am that person that detests Oldboy), but I can say that watching his english-language debut Stoker is quite an experience. 

The movie is written by Wentworth Miller who you may remember was once the star of the television show Prison Break. The protagonist is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who is the kind of introverted and uncomfortable teenager you'd expect Mia Wasikowska to be playing. She lives in an eccentric gothic mansion with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The movie begins with the death of India's father Richard (Dermott Mulroney) on the day of her eighteenth birthday and the arrival, apropos of the funeral, of his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode). From the minute she meets his mysterious uncle, India has the suspicion he is up to no good. Don't worry if you think I'm going to spoil Stoker, this fact isn't as much a spoiler as what happens whenever a mysterious uncle is introduced in a work of fiction. 

In that sense, I don't think anyone would call the movie's story incredibly original. This is a dynamic that we have seen before and a story that, as it reveals itself, is far more familiar than we might initially have thought. It is basically a coming of age story dipped in dark instincts. The script is the weakest part of the movie but even then it provides the basis for some delightfully directed scenes and despite being a thriller isn't filled with jump scares nor does it attempt a stupid last minute twist (unlike the recently released Side Effects). My problems with the screenplay are mainly with the characterization of the protagonists which is at times inconsistent and at times insufficient. There is, for example, a flashback that presents Matthew Goode's character as completely different to the person we've been watching and then there's India, who suffers from being an intensely passive character (especially in the early part of the movie). There seems to be a fascination with the stock character of the introverted girl, who is very passive throughout the movie until she finally "comes of age" and becomes a dynamic character. This is the box a rather great actress like Wasikowska has been sadly typecast in and although she is pretty good in Stoker, I hope she manages to find more varied roles in the future. 

With those flaws out of the way, it's time to say that Stoker is a terrific cinematic experience. Yes, I'm tired of this "angsty girl" type, but Wasikowska is a good enough actress to make it really work. Actually, it was after the movie ended that I first started noticing Stoker's failures. While the movie was playing, I was immersed in its crazy, hypnotic world of American gothic. This may very well be the best looking movie of the year. The cinematography by Park regular Chung Chung-hoon is amazing not only in its lightning but also the way it moves and decides to frame the images. In a world of shot reverse shot cutting, this kind of engaging photography is a true gift. And that's not mentioning the other production values, all outstanding. Production design, costume design, score and sound design all work together to create what are sure to be some of the most fascinating images of the year. 

Chan-wook Park is a top-notch craftsman, who knows how to shoot a movie in the most interesting possible way and in it turns out that his vision of America is as delightful as it is addictive. He presents a similar campy, cartoony and truly disturbing universe as Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. A balance between true darkness and comedic entertainment that I found fascinating. This might not be a perfect movie, but I wouldn't change the experience of watching it for anything.

Grade: B

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