STOKER (2013, directed by Chan-wook Park, 98 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Few cinematic events this year were as titillating as the arrival of South Korean director Chan-wook Park on American shores, where the merciless creator of hard-hitting thrillers like Oldboy and Thirst has made his first English language film, Stoker. Park’s work has been so masterfully constructed up to now, a worried mind might travel back 20 years ago, when director John Woo capped off his string of action masterpieces with a drab misfire, Hard Target with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Co-produced by the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony (one of the last projects Tony worked on before his tragic death last summer), I’m glad to report that the producers have let Chan-wook Park create a “Chan-wook Park” film. Dripping with beautifully composed imagery and imaginative camerawork, Park’s U.S. debut has many of the elements for which his fans love him. While Park’s talent is always on display over Stoker‘s 98 minutes, something is amiss, making this dark domestic mood piece the least impressive of his catalog of dazzlers.
Stoker is so rich with atmospheric dread, that it is easy to bow to Park’s sheer mastery of the form. Filmed on location in Tennessee, Stoker goes deep on the Southern Gothic touches as we meet 18-year-old India Stoker (Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, star of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland,) a morose high school senior whose gloomy nature seems exacerbated by the unexpected death of her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney, in flashbacks). India’s icy mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) offers little support, and things get downright Hamlet-like when Richard’s brother Charles (Matthew Goode, Ozymandias from The Watchmen movie) arrives at the funeral to comfort the family. Flashing cold, steely eyes with his Prozac-toned voice, Charles tells India at the wake that he’ll be moving into their house, news that awakens caution in India and leaves Evelyn suspiciously gleeful. With her Goth-ish attitude, India is a pariah at school and now a third-wheel at home, so she is isolated in her quest to figure out what actually happened to her father and what is really motivating her creepy Uncle Charles.
Director Park brings with his his trusted cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung so his penchant for classical compositions and deep, dark colors remains. But this is the first of Park’s features that he did not write and the script, while sharing Park’s interest in grueling violence and melodrama, doesn’t have the unforced structure of Park’s own work, and little of his grace with characters. The story’s classical elements can’t help but give off occasional sparks, its mother/daughter conflict is at the heart of many fairy tales, and the vulnerable young princess lured in by the lascivious wolf always makes pulses rise. But while Stoker’s screenplay (a first-time script by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller) knows the timelessness of these themes, it lacks the deeper psychological insight to give real meaning to the proceedings. Characters are merely evil or drawn to evil, defying any richer nuance or more complex motivation.
Park’s early films have gotten away with outrageous premises because he and his actors create a believably human sense of his characters’ inner lives. The restraint that actors possess in the Park’s Korean work is a style unfortunately missing in Stoker, where Uncle Charles’ intensely inhuman glare loudly broadcasts his insanity, Nicole Kidman acts as spaced-out and maniacal as her immobile forehead will allow and Mia Wasikowska’s India, well, she’s actually very good. Wasikowska’s flowing hair and roundish features give her a girl-next-store beauty that allows room for a tough intelligence and mystery that draws us in. Wasikowska seems bound for greater work in the future, and her subtle, absorbing performance is another reason that even as a misfire, Stoker is never less than watchable.
As Stoker heads into its final act, all our long-held suspicions about Uncle Charlie are disappointingly proven true, which would leave the tale totally anticlimactic if the film didn’t have a bunch of left-field implausibilities to roll out before its closing. The entrancing visuals never stop; Chan-wook Park does his part, it is the typically plodding Hollywood script that brings Stoker down. For once and for all, maybe foreign directors should stop misspending their energies making uneven Hollywood films. The South Korean film industry has been enjoying a fertile era for over a decade now, making international reputations for successful directors like Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) Boon Joon-Ho (The Host) and Hong Sang-soo (In Another Country). Stoker suggests that film-goers worldwide might be better off if we sent U.S. talent to South Korea to learn a thing or two rather than bringing such superior talents as such Chan-wook Park to the U.S., merely to siphon off an insufficient bit of their magic.