Sunday, March 10, 2013

Love: Stoker

Stoker is a film primarily concerned with aesthetics. Specifically, the aesthetics of the unnerving and, perhaps, the awe of the sublime. Its focus, before narrative, before any shred of believable characterization, seems firmly rooted in the painting of an intensely Gothic picture. Not mall goth. Not dyed black hair and a ripped up Siouxsie t-shirt. Victorian Gothic, the sort that bleeds its penny dreadful characters towards a descent into madness, which allows the rich to decay on their estates, the villain to brood vampiric, and the persecuted, misunderstood heroine to waste her hours on the moors, grappling with her thoughts.  Stoker immerses itself in this world and commits to its atmospheric artifice in a way that blocks out the sun and lets the film exist according to its own deeply melodramatic principles. It's beautiful, vile, and suspended in a slow-burning Technicolor milieu somewhere between Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk.
As Stoker opens, we're introduced to young India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), and faced with the off-screen death of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney).  Already quiet and withdrawn, India seems to visibly retreat further upon the realization she will be trapped in the family's labyrinthine home with her psychologically weak mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  India and her father were bonded, and it becomes immediately clear that her rather eccentric gifts were supported and fostered in no part by Evelyn, who she seems to churlishly resent the mere presence of.  Before either of the Stoker women are given a moment to grieve, their lives are further disrupted by the arrival Richard's mysterious brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), a charming, blood stranger who seems to take an immediate interest in India's well-being.
As is appropriate in these sorts of tales, Evelyn invites Charlie to move in and, immediately, the triangulation of this new family unit creates a palpable tension. Yeah, it's sort of that kind of tension. There's a push pull of fascination and revulsion, of the appropriate versus the undeniable, and Charlie draws the women in like a particularly seductive, smartly dressed spider.  Of course, the key to all of what follows can be found in the curious nature of the film's dark heroine.  India is no victimized nymphet, and Stoker isn't particularly interested in granting her less agency to make you more comfortable.  Instead, we peak into the family's jewel box of a home to find a gothic tableaux complete with a quick-witted, dead eyed young lady who has cultivated interests just outside of the social norm.  India is a pianist and huntress, a girl whose taxidermy kills dot her deceased father's study. When we meet her she's popping blisters from her beloved saddle shoes and when in mourning she buttons shirts to her neck and glares over a copy of The Encyclopedia of Funerals.  As we slowly learn more about Charlie, as we uncover his dangerous past and potentially sociopathic present, we are dragged into India's chilling perspective.
Stoker is, of course, something of a suspense tale (many have already suggested it shares DNA with Shadow of a Doubt) and psychological thriller beneath its moody atmospherics, and as we become further aligned with India's teetering grief and heavy-handed sexual awakening, the possibilities of the film open beneath already quaking feet.  There are periods where we may hope that all the simmering is being manufactured by our imaginative heroine, that she has taken a cue from a million and one nineteenth century novels or soap operas to set up the playing field just so.  There's a dreamlike quality to the visuals, a painterly, oil saturated tactility that divorces each perfectly arranged space from anything close to reality.  Something very sinister is happening on the Stoker estate, and as her uncle moves in and the people close to them begin disappearing, a protagonist already comfortable among dead things makes for an unsettling twist on several familiar refrains.
We must note, of course, that Stoker is the first English-language film of a director who certainly isn't a stranger to doom and gloom freakiness.  Park Chan-Wook, who previously directed Oldboy and the brilliant vampire film Thirst, brings Asian cinematic sensibilities and pacing to an otherwise curiously Anglicized creepshow. The visuals alone are extraordinary, from the colors of the walls to the perfectly lit, sharp contours of the pallid figures that pass through the lurid landscape.  I'd watch this film a dozen times to soak in the deftly manipulated, tonal qualities of the cinematography alone, but the perfectly frank, just-so quality of the story makes the film all the better.  The script, written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, isn't anything terribly new, but is exactly what the visuals call for. There's a darkly comedic, almost surreal timbre to Stoker's dialogue.  We listen and we know that people don't speak like this, but it seems only appropriate that here they do.  Early on I was reminded, oddly, of the voice overs in a Hayao Miyazaki film, and somehow, that seems apt.  Stoker has the quality of a very dark fairy tale, a simplicity and "other"-ness that makes its twisted meanderings all the more effective.  I'm ready to watch it again.


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