18 March 2013

THE FAMILY THAT PREYS

There's no doubt that Stoker goes for it, for every given value of "it" you can come up with. And this is absolutely the saving grace of a movie that is all over the place, totally unconcerned with whether it's making good or bad decisions, and generally flaunting its own grotesqueness in a way that works only because that grotesqueness is so freely presented, with good energy and high spirits.

It is, in short, every inch a Park Chan-wook movie, the South Korean thriller expert making a very splashy Engligh-language debut and keeping his personality very much intact. And that's more a good thing than bad, though certainly, not one of Park's movies has been completely free of problems, and Stoker is at any rate more broken, in more ways, than the director's previous work best-known in the English speaking world: the "Vengeance" trilogy, and 2009's vampire horror-melodrama Thirst. One might hope, with a name like Stoker, that his new film would tap into a little bit of that bloodsucking energy, but in fact it's a largely overt riff on Hitchcock's killer-in-the-family thriller Shadow of a Doubt, right down to the antagonist named Uncle Charlie, one of many points where the script overreaches something fierce. I cannot say whether the version of Wentworth Miller's screenplay that made the prestigious Black List was identical to the one that reached the screen, but I have to say, it's pretty damn obvious about a whole lot of things that might be better left mysterious. Suffice it to say that the story of 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), and her strange relationship with long-lost Charlie (Matthew Goode), is not one that will keep you guessing, if you've ever read a story or seen a movie that falls even broadly in the category of a thriller. The details are in some way surprising, but not, by any stretch of the imagination the broad strokes.

It's hard to say if it's actually a problem that the film is so predictable; certainly, Park doesn't appear to care about the story one way or the other, for all the attention he lavishes on it. This is very unmistakably an exercise in overwhelming style for him - as pretty much all of his movies have been, but increasingly so as his career has developed - and if anything, having a pretty good idea about what Charlie's Dark Secret is helps in building an omnipresent atmosphere of suffocating dread; since we're not busy wondering what and if, Park can devote all of his energy to making the whole thing as roiling and oppressive as possible, and that certainly ends up with a whole lot of scenes that, on their own merits, are absolutely flawless horror filmmaking. There are moments of sublime, inescapable creepiness here, made by a filmmaker whose ability to effortlessly jerk the audience around hasn't been in doubt for years, and which linger with grim, toxic potency: a sexually-laden piano duet that is as terrifying as anything could be in its ramped-up sound design and strangling editing and the excellent, go-for-broke acting involved springs to mind, but it's not a film light on moments that, divorced of context, are as strong as any genre film could want.

"Divorced of context", I say, but then Stoker doesn't do all that much work to build a context in the first place. Simply put, in among all the gestures of unimpeachable craftsmanship and brutal manipulation of the viewer, it's a deeply empty movie, in which that craftsmanship and manipulation is an end unto itself. This would bother me considerably more if it weren't so good; if we didn't live in an age where horror thrillers that actually horrified and thrilled are as rare as hen's teeth. Simply for feeling acutely dangerous, Stoker earns a passing grade from me. But that's the hell of it, there is nothing else at all. For all that the script piles on details about India's dead father (Dermot Mulroney, in flashbacks) and icy, clearly unloving mother (Nicole Kidman, wasted until the final act), India herself is simply not that interesting or easy to care about, one way or the other; we neither root for her as a detective hunting around Uncle Charlie's past, nor fear for her as a potential victim of his depredations. On the page, she might have felt like a figure with agency and personality - given the sexual element that enters the film early and never lets up, it's almost certain she had more of a personality in the script - but Park stages the film and blocks his actors with such calculated detachment that it's just damn hard to actually think of her as a person; and Wasikowska, though exceptionally intelligent about the mechanics of what she's doing, is certainly not pushing through anything to warm the movie up in that regard. The characters are obviously vessels for affect: why else introduce India's super-human sense of hearing, which is used as a bland plot element a few times and never seems to inform Wasikowska's performance, but goddamn, does it ever put in a robust appearance in the film's rich, overwhelming sound design.

And that's the thing: Stoker might be largely a pretext for style, but the style works. Not as well as in any of the director's earlier films, certainly; its violent gestures are neither as visually poetic nor as morally unsettling as anything that shows up in a Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, or certainly an Oldboy, and those films had involving characters in addition to being exercises in visceral style as justification for itself. Still, if the goal of filmmaking is to create a particular emotional state, and the goal of horror in particular is to leave the viewer feeling off-kilter and violated, by God, Stoker does that. Mostly it does this through sound (the heightened, disorienting mix that pumps up silences), and music (Clint Mansell's score is maybe my favorite thing he's ever done, discordant and eerie without relying on traditional genre tropes); to a certain degree it does this with the stuffy production design and super-saturated visuals; only barely does it to this through the human beings affected by those elements of craft. This is compelling, and not totally without merit; it does leave Stoker as a movie that simply will not work for all or even most people, and even as a form and genre junkie, I have to admit that I admire it without having been particularly excited about the experience of watching it. Still, it's hard to deny that it's defiantly unlike anything else produced in the relative mainstream, and that counts.

7/10

14 comments:

Thrash Til' Death said...

I missed this one on its UK run, sadly, so I'll probably pick it up on DVD. Empty-but-stylish is pretty much the consensus I've been hearind, and that's perfectly fine with me. Arch style is exactly what I want from my Korean genre directors.

David Greenwood said...

Thrash, I haven't seen "Stoker" yet, but I will vouch for all of Park Chan-Wook's previous films being some level of awesome. I don't think "Oldboy" is his best, even though that's the one everyone talks about for some reason. "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance" is my fave, but I have soft spots for "Lady Vengeance" and "I'm a Cyborg But That's OK"

KingKubrick said...

Hell, this review's good enough for me. I'm seeing it.

@Greenwood,

I'll tell you why people talk about Oldboy the most: the hammer fight scene in the corridor. It's my nominee for best fight scene of all-time. Park's done excellent work throughout his career but he's never delivered another all-time great sequence like that one.

Tim said...

I agree with both of you: the hammer fight is my absolute favorite fight scene of the '00s, but snip that out, and the whole of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a better movie - certainly, it's a better-built narrative and generally better acted.

But the takeaway should be, all three of them are essentially viewing for anyone who has even the smallest affection for action films. And a reasonably strong stomach.

Thrash Til' Death said...

I very much consider myself a fan of Park Chan-wook already (I wouldn't have cared much about "Stoker" if I wasn't), although I've only seen "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" and "Oldboy." I love them both, but I'm gonna have to go with the latter as my favourite. Not just because of the hammer fight either. It's a great fight scene to be sure, but it's just one imaginative set-piece among scores, and I'm not sure I'd call it the best of the '00s either - there are a LOT of strong claimants to that title in Asian action cinema alone (the last 20 minutes of "Ong-Bak", the stairway fight in "Tom Yum Goong", the finale of "The City of Violence", the alleyway fight in "Sha Po Long"... I could go on).

Tim said...

Oh man, that stairway fight... I had totally forgotten about that stairway fight. Still think I slightly prefer the Oldboy fight, but it is gosh-darned close.

David Greenwood said...

"Oldboy" had no shortage of excellent scenes, and the corridor fight was an incredible one. It's definitely a more active, exciting film than "Mr Vengeance" as well. But I'm not a fan of the plot, partly because so much time is devoted to untangling the "mystery", and if you've already seen the film these expository bits are pretty boring.

Mostly, however, I think it's the shallowest of Park's vengeance films. "Mr. Vengeance" showed how an entire cast of characters, all believing they are wronged by somebody, can't possibly all have the vengeance they seek without everyone going down in flames. "Lady Vengeance" showed how even after vengeance is achieved it doesn't bring the dead back to life, or undo your wrongs. Going back further, "Joint Security Area" had some incisive observations about the Korean conflict (vengeance being a primary driver of it).

These are all to some degree tragedies, and in "Oldboy", Oh Dae-su's fatal flaw is... Well, apart from having previously been a jerk, what is it? There is that one point where he has the chance to kill the villain and decides not to in favor of learning the truth. That he gets punished for that seems kind of cruel, doesn't it?

In any case, it's not a film I get much out of seeing again. Except of course for a few of those really good scenes. Its a fine movie, I just don't think it's a great introduction to Park, and so many people start there. He's capable of more.

Thrash Til' Death said...

^ I see where you're coming from David. "Sympathy"'s definitely a more thematically coherent film, and it handles the symmetry and moral ambiguity of the story very well. If anything, I think it's kind of a mistake to identify the two films as part of a trilogy, as they're really very different. "Oldboy" I don't enjoy so much for its thematic resonance - honestly, I'd be hard pressed to even say what the theme or "message" of "Oldboy" even is - as its extraordinary expressionistic portrayal of existential suffering. It's the myriad directorial gestures and screenplay quirks that Park brings to the table that really impress upon us what it means to have had 15 years of life stolen. Personal preference, maybe, but I find that more valuable "Sympathy"'s moral complexity.

David Greenwood said...

Thrash, that's an excellent point. I have a trouble with letting my personal biases affect my assessment of films. Oldboy is perhaps the odd one out in the Vengeance films because it's the only one adapted from outside material (loosely I understand). In a way, it's valuable for not being as blatantly philosophical as Park's other films, and for being more immediate and harrowing.

David Greenwood said...

So Tim, any chance you might revisit some of the work of Mr Park? I'd love to have people get more exposure to his lesser known gems like "JSA" and "I'm a Cyborg...". And the evolution of his artistic style over the years has been pretty interesting IMO... If you choose not to, then I might ^_^

Chris D said...

If either of you does decide to revisit Park, make sure not to skip over his short film Cut. The compressed running time apparently motivated Park to dispense with plot and character entirely, then double-down on the wild perversity and the results are delightfully nuts.

Tim said...

I've gotta say, there's obviously a market for a Park retro. My dance card is a bit full right now, so anybody who wants to do one won't be getting in my way, but I'd certainly consider myself interested.

David Greenwood said...

Challenge accepted!

http://metal-philosopher.blogspot.com/2013/03/movie-review-jsa-joint-security-area.html

I'm going to give a crack at a Park retrospective, though I doubt know if I'll be able to track down "Three... Extremes". Hopefully this will convince me to actually update my blog regularly ^_^.

Tim said...

Excellent, looking forward to reading what you come up with!