By James Rocchi
Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5
With its swoony, languid camera movement and exquisitely crafted world of dread and desire, Chan-Wook Park’s “Stoker” is a rare pleasure — a film that could only exist as cinema, not a novel with actors or a stage play with special effects or a painting that moves. Park’s work here is a masterclass in color and composition, emotion and elegance; Wentworth Miller’s script doesn’t have anything as mundane as plot holes, it has hand-carved vents for the poisoned-perfume miasma of its attitude and atmosphere to float through every part of it. Park’s other films “Oldboy” and “Thirst” among them, take a similar operatic approach to big-scale stories and gorgeously ugly environments; “Stoker” is of a part with those films, even if it lacks their glorious excesses, and the change from the normal Park’s arrival at the American multiplex marks makes for a bracing tonic.
India (Mia Wasikowska) is our heroine, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood whose privileged upbringing has not prepared her for the world. When we meet India, she’s in sorrow; her father has passed, her mother (Nicole Kidman) is pale and sick with grief, dressed in widow’s black. Ending his lengthy travels abroad, India’s Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) has also come to join the family for the funeral. And he’ll stay, for a while, to help everything be okay…
“Stoker” is not in any way a whodunnit, nor is it a howdunnit: Goode’s mix of million-dollar-smile and thousand-yard stare make it abundantly clear that Uncle Charlie is trouble. More precisely, “Stoker” is a film designed to make you wonder at its baroque, brave, bloody madness, and specifically to sit up in your seat and wonder, incredulously, as to what the bloody blazes is going to happen next.
The script is shot through with musings on nature vs. nurture as India wonders about which parental figure she can best become — her deceased father, her absent mother, or the strong-but-wrong Charlie. Wasikowska may have headlined the profitable-yet-horrible Tim Burton “Alice,” but the sublime irony is that Lewis Carroll would find far more to admire in the Victorian flourishes and constraint of “Stoker” than the clanging failure based on his own book. Wasikowska is thoughtful and contemplative here, yet also capable of swift, startling action; watching India become strange to herself as she learns the normally-hidden interconnections and secrets in her family.
Again, all of Park’s camera work and sublimely-constructed shots will not appeal to anyone who hates the work of Dario Argento or Brian DePalma — in which case, frankly, you might wonder if they like movies. But put less unkindly, this is also why bookstores have sections — “Stoker” feels more like something that would capture your eye on the shelves, not a garish mass-market product shoved in your face by the register. Somehow insane yet restrained, beautiful and lurid, “Stoker” is a glorious, truly gothic movie whose victory of style over substance is not a tragedy but a glorious triumph.
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