Friday, March 1, 2013


Sound And Fury, Signifying Nothing But Off-Key Notes

Mia Wasikowska as India and Matthew Goode as Charlie in Chan-wook Park's thriller "Stoker".  Fox Searchlight

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, March 1, 2013

Decorated with opulence and seductive atmospherics, Chan-wook Park's "Stoker", the South Korean director's beautiful English language film debut, offers sound and fury, signifying nothing but the sensual, psychosexual tension between India (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie (Matthew Goode).  Charlie's the funny uncle India never knew she had.  The odd, preternaturally handsome Charlie comes to live with India and her emotionally jagged mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) in their remote countryside house following the death of Richard, India's father (Dermot Mulroney).

An only child, India uneasily wanders through adolescence.  Her strained relationship with Evie is exacerbated by her father's death.  The gulf between the women is felt in dinner table situations, some played for wicked humor.  A visit by India's worried grandmother (Jacki Weaver) barely quells the contempt India has for Evie.  The charming Charlie wears a permanent smile and transfixing glare and becomes a source of intrigue and infatuation to India.  For a while "Stoker" will be a balancing act of warring sexual wills.

Sexual maturity or evolution is conveyed in shots of India's feet, ankles and shoes, all precious signatures of innocence, sensuality and growth, as India walks up and down the symbolic staircase of womanhood.  Such smart, subtle but resonant touches define the parameters of "Stoker".  Unfortunately the quality and depth of the film's characters are missing.  Thinly drawn by screenwriter Wentworth Miller, the players are pawns in a thriller that feels elongated even for its relatively short running time.  I saw the handwriting on this wall early on, and the artifacts India stumbles upon have little tie-in to the film's payoff, which is rather weak and slightly ridiculous.

Uninformed viewers may go into "Stoker" expecting Dracula to fly out onto the screen at them.  Bram Stoker, alas, is nowhere to be found, and while Mr. Park's thriller may rely on that hook as a selling point, horror is mostly on the back burner as "Stoker" trafficks in some S&M and mild titillation.  "Stoker" floats an idea provocative for some even in 2013: that a young, intelligent woman can get off on what we see here.  Patriarchal societies in particular have long characterized a woman's sexuality as "mysterious" and are either threatened or curious about it.  This curiosity is investigated by Mr. Park in a careful, sensitive way, unfolding as a private, intimate diary of India's sexual awakening.  This is where "Stoker" is most effective.  

The timing of "Stoker" dovetails with the current death penalty trial in Arizona of Jodi Arias, a 27-year-old brunette who somewhat resembles India, played intelligently by Ms. Wasikowska ("Jane Eyre").  Ms. Arias admitted to killing her boyfriend, and in gruesomely violent and ritualistic fashion.  Excessive details of the case (notably Ms. Arias's explicit sexual proclivities and exploits) have been trumpeted by 24-hour cable news media.  I think Mr. Park would have made a stronger film if he recreated Ms. Arias' story instead of this one.  It would have offered a better ballpark for him to play in.  Mr. Park has directed deeper and stronger stories in his native country but here he's let down by Mr. Miller's unsure story.

Nonetheless, there's a parallel in the sex and violence of Ms. Arias's case and the events the fictional India is embroiled in.  Both women are tiny delicate "whirlwinds" of calculation and improvisation who gain stature through affirming their sexuality, whether in taboo ways or not.  In gaining strength both become more confident and graduate to a higher if not necessarily more spiritual place in their own womanhood.  Their love-hate relationships with men are alternately vigorous and violent, laced with the passion, anger, desire and pain that calibrates intimate relationships between human beings.

If nothing else, Mr. Park who directed the iconic "Oldboy" (which Spike Lee remakes in theaters this October), keeps audience interest with his arresting and evocative visual style.  There's a rhythmic, aural onomatopoeic language, if you will, that punctuates the ends of many scenes.  Mr. Park's impressive cinematic vocabulary and landscape however, don't deserve the potted plant characters that inhabit it.  The back story and reveal of the circumstances surrounding Richard feel tacked on, even if predictable. 

"Stoker", despite its good looks, is ultimately a disappointment and a failure.  With such a talented cast on display it's mostly Mr. Miller's fault, not the director's.

Also with: Alden Ehrenreich, Phyllis Somerville, Lucas Till, Harmony Korine, Ralph Brown.

"Stoker", which opened today across the U.S. and Canada, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for disturbing violent and sexual content.  The film's running time is one hour and 38 minutes.

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