There I was asking myself the other day, Why don’t Hollywood actors ever get to star in Korean films? And, wouldn’t you know it, Chan-wook Park’s Stoker comes out.
I’m being snarky, of course, a habit I’ve railed against recently. But Tuttle also pointed out the other day that I used the word ‘relevant’ in a text message when it came to using a picture of Gareth Pugh’s recent collection as a lead image for Tuttle’s post about Paris fashion week, and I’ve railed against the misuse of ‘relevant’ as well. In my defense, that picture was truly relevant to his piece, just as I believe saying that Stoker is a Korean film made in Hollywood is relevant to this review.
Still snarky, though.
I enjoyed both Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, Park’s cult hits that crossed over to the West. His film about a vampire priest, Thirst, was likewise weird and wonderful, if more subdued and lyrical than the other two. His vision is without doubt extraordinary and, at the risk of sounding like a Victorian Orientalist of the worst kind, exotic. But does it translate to our rather singleminded Western culture? Perhaps it will one day, but not in Stoker.
In a complete departure from Park’s convoluted, non-linear Korean work, Stoker’s story and script are just about as singleminded as a film can get. Gone is his brand of macabre humor and the offbeat tangents, which I guess only Tarantino is allowed to engage in west of the Bosphorus. Then again, QT takes much of his storytelling inspiration from Asian genre films of the kind Park helped redefine, so it’s all a rather cannibalistic from a cinema studies point of view—maybe the Korean mixed rice dish bibimbap would be a more accurate culinary analogy.
Stylistically, Stoker is shot in a way that might make Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk about Kevin) envious if she were more tone deaf to visual nuance. There are compositions and shots by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung that are worthy of a modern-art museum, or a gallery that shows Wolfgang Tillmans; in other words, you’re not likely to see anything like them in commercial Hollywood cinema, particularly in a ‘thriller,’ if that’s what you can call this. (It’s also classified as a drama on the IMDb, which is perhaps more accurate, if you take kabuki theater as your point of origin.) Looking at it from a fine art perspective, I enjoyed the different-ness of the way much of the film looks, but you’re in hot water with me if the camerawork and editing is the most remarkable thing I found.
Still, let me insert a note here with regard to some of the camerawork: People, and you know who you are, please stop trying to reinvent the over-the-shoulder two-shot. You’re fucking with the pacing of the dialogue and mashing the performances with the camera, not to mention making me more seasick than 70s pulled focus. You’re trying to make fetch happen, to quote Mean Girls. Thank you.
To say that the script is anemic is to disparage anemia and those who suffer from it. The story centers around the withdrawn India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a character who has taken the emo teen to new levels of dark—let’s call it twelve feet under rather than the usual six. Rather than cutting herself, she hunts exotic birds in the forest with her father (Dermont Mulroney) and stuffs them, or she did until he was killed in an accident that presages the opening sequence. She’s left all alone in a rambling old mansion—so well art directed it would have Pedro Almodóvar screaming “¡fabulous!”—with her mother, Evelyn, played by that benchmark for all cougars, Nicole Kidman, who has to be the most perfectly taxidermied bird in the whole house. Enter world-traveling psycho killer Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom neither India nor her mother have ever heard about before. Incredibly. As in, so incredibly that this is where the film not so much derails as it never has a chance to leave the station to pick up steam and skip the rails in the first place.
Goode is a British actor who actually manages to make Kidman look less waxen when they are on screen together, a truly amazing feat. But the British often do have amazing skin, what with the moisture in the air and all… Look, there I go again paying attention to details that shouldn’t be in a review.
I have implied that Asian performance and culture is somehow more wooden and repressed than Western. Perhaps it didn’t help that I saw the recent episode of Girls before I went to the Cinerama Dome to watch Stoker—yes, it is a testament to what time of year we’re in with the cinema release schedule that this is playing in the colossal showcase theater at the Arclight, where normally a blockbuster like Avengers would be screening. Maybe having just experienced Hannah, Adam, Marny et al. having full-blown ten-year-old-teenager meltdowns made the way the leads in Stoker were directed seem more robotic than they really were, but I doubt it. As I said about Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, there is a meaningless artifice to the blank expression that I cannot buy into, but it’s oh-so-very fashionable.
I’m not sure it’s entirely Park’s fault, though; this is the second time I’ve seen Waskiowska appear in a lead role as a live-action marionette. The other was Alice in Wonderland, when she plod the movie like a dazed maypole while Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp danced around her. India Stoker is almost the exact same performance, except now she’s got Wednesday Addams’ black hair without the deadpan humor, much less Christina Ricci’s delightful bug-eyed creepiness. I loved Waskiowska in Jane Eyre, though, so we’ll just have to wait for the jury to come back after her next few films to call a verdict on her performance skills.
The aforementioned anemic script is by Wentworth Miller, co-lead of the TV series Prison Break. Who knew someone so beautiful could have such a tenebrous, twisted mind? I did, I suppose—that would make him a lot like most of my lovers. But the problem is there is no one in the story on whom to pin your hopes and aspirations, a fatal flaw for any drama. I’m not spoiling anything because as anyone can deduce from the trailer, this is about two psychopathic murderers, not just one. There is no redemption, no remorse, no character arcs, an excessively ballsy approach to creating a film with commercial pretentions, and it doesn’t work. In fact, Stoker should be held up as an example in film school of why a writer should always work within the parameters of classic storytelling and character development. It would require a spoiler alert if I reveal details about the third act, when Miller fully exposes just how ludicrous the premise and the background story is, and Park ties in the strangely beautiful visuals from the opening of the film and basically kills one of the most inventive credit sequences in recent memory by explaining them with… I’ve already used the adjective ‘ludicrous’ once in this sentence, and it would be mighty unwriterly of me to use it again, but it is the most appropriate.
I will grant that Miller has written some sequences and a few moments that are somewhat lyrical, but there comes a scene when Kidman’s character explains why people have children that is both unnecessary and specious; apparently, it’s to cover up your own failings, so you procreate in the hope that your child will do better than you and fulfill your dreams. In other words, by the time you’re in your late twenties, you’ve so given up on life that your only recourse is to have a baby and raise it, of all easy copouts.
Um, no. There is a sound hypothesis floating around out there by a man named Richard Dawkins that suggests all we exist for is to procreate and pass along our genes. And you’re hearing that from a Ghey.
The production values in Stoker are topnotch, but even interior decorators and fashion designers will be distracted by the performances and script. It’s a pity because this is a film I really wanted to love. I’m hovering between a Meh and a Nice for it, but I like Park as a director, I admire that he takes risks, and he certainly did here, so I’ll give it a: