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Stoker

At long last, the awards season blues are finally behind us! This weekend sees the release of The Call and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, both of which have received mixed to positive reviews. But being the film snob that I am, I was most gratified to see some long-overdue relief from my local arthouses.

There’s Stoker, a highly-lauded thriller from Park Chan-Wook (he of Oldboy and Thirst) in his English-language debut. There’s Masquerade, a “Prince and the Pauper” tale set in medieval Japan. There’s The Gatekeepers, a documentary about the Israeli military and its role in Middle Eastern politics. There’s A Place at the Table, a documentary about the rampant (and, according to the film, easily solvable) food shortage in America.

Based purely on what I’ve read about these films, they all sound like fascinating works that are worthy of a recommendation. I only wish I could have enough time to see them all. Alas, my time is very short at the moment, and priorities must be made. With all respect to the other three films under consideration, I simply had to begin with Stoker.

This is the story of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman living in what appears to be a very wealthy household. The film opens on her eighteenth birthday, when her father (Richard, played by Dermot Mulroney) tragically dies in a peculiar car accident. Cut to the funeral, where we meet Charlie (Matthew Goode), who claims to be Richard’s brother.

The meeting is strange for a variety of reasons. For one thing, neither India nor Evelyn ever had any idea that Richard had a brother until that day. Additionally, Charlie seems unnaturally calm about the death of his alleged brother. The guy doesn’t even bother wearing black to the funeral. Likewise, Evelyn appears suspiciously okay with her husband’s unexpected death, and she’s far too eager to take this stranger at his word and welcome him into her home.

By comparison, India is distraught. She was a very shy and withdrawn girl to begin with, and her father — who, by the way, appeared to be the only one she could call a friend — is now gone. And naturally, she’s both suspicious and angry that her relatives aren’t more upset about the loss. She thinks that something smells rotten, and — big surprise! — it does.

Before moving on, I should note that Richard and India were known to spend ample amounts of quality time on hunting trips together. In fact, Richard went so far as to have all of his daughter’s kills taxidermied. Is that sweet? Disturbing? I’ll let you be the judge.

The first thing to note about this film is that it’s superlative on a technical level. The shots are beautifully constructed, the editing is novel in so many incredible ways (the transition from Evelyn’s hair to tall grass in a flashback is my personal favorite), and the use of color is simply jaw-dropping. There’s the bright yellow umbrella standing out against a drab rainstorm. There’s the black clothing that pops out against stark white backgrounds. There’s Evelyn’s bedroom, full of deep, luscious reds and blues. This is mind-blowing stuff, folks.

Then there’s how this movie sounds. One of India’s little quirks is that after a lifetime of tracking prey in the woods and blending into the background at parties, India’s senses have been honed to a borderline-supernatural degree. She sees and hears things that anyone else would ignore as totally superfluous. It’s a difficult concept to explain in any way that makes sense, but the phenomenal sound editing does a fine job of making it work. There’s also Clint Mansell’s score, which… really, do I need to say anything about the score aside from “Clint Mansell?”

The cast deserves a great deal of credit as well. Evelyn — a mother who may or may not be mentally disturbed — is a role that Nicole Kidman could play in her sleep. Likewise, Matthew Goode was a perfect fit to play Charlie. Here’s a character with sex appeal and charisma to act as a thin disguise for unknown amounts of crazy, and they gave the role to Adrian fucking Veidt. Yeah, he’s really good in this movie. And Mia Wasikowska… wow. Imagine her performance in Jane Eyre if she decided to play the character as a total sociopath, and that’s pretty much India. It’s amazing to watch.

(Side note: If you haven’t seen Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, more’s the pity for you.)

Unfortunately, the film does have one slight Achilles’ heel: The pacing. If I was being charitable, I would call the pacing “deliberate.” If I didn’t know better, I would call the pacing “dreadfully slow.” That’s not to say the proceedings ever get boring, however.

For one thing, the film makes early and frequent use of some very powerful recurring symbols. Shoes, for example, are used as a very poignant and creative representation of growing up. There’s also Richard’s belt, which starts out as a sweet little memento of India’s father before it gets twisted into a symbol of gruesome violence.

That brings me to one of the main reasons why this film kept me hooked through the slow first act: The looming threat of violence. Remember, this whole story began with a car accident that may not have been an accident at all. It’s heavily implied that Charlie — or Evelyn, or possibly both! — may have been involved with Richard’s death. As such, the movie implicitly makes it clear that Richard was only the beginning, and that more characters will die as the narrative progresses. Sure enough, a character does get killed at the 40-minute mark, and that’s when the gloves officially come off. That’s when the stakes get raised, the central mystery starts to unfurl, and the narrative really gets going.

Equally important, the characters (and of course, the actors playing them) are compelling to watch. That’s not to say that any of them are likeable, but that’s beside the point. The point is that Charlie’s warm demeanor, Evelyn’s bright smiles, and India’s withdrawn nature are all nothing more than facades. Just by looking at these characters, we know that they’re all hiding something awful. So what happens when the characters’ mysteries and secrets get peeled away? What happens when their insecurities, agendas, and mental problems finally boil to the surface? Whatever it is, we know that it will be very big and very ugly, and that’s what kept me through the slower moments.

Come to think of it, who wrote this movie? *checks IMDB* Wentworth Miller. Never heard of him. What else has he done? *scrolls down* Well, it seems this is the first script he’s ever written. That’s interesting. *keeps scrolling* It looks like he’s mostly known as an actor. He’s best known for… wait, he was the guy in “Prison Break?” He was in Underworld? Stealth? Resident Evil: Afterlife?!

This amazing movie was written by the guy who plays Chris Redfield for Paul W.S. Anderson. Oh. My. God. I did not see that coming. I don’t know if this is a fluke, or maybe he simply had the good fortune of writing a script for Park Chan-Wook, but I genuinely want to know why Miller has been wasting his time acting for bland action films when he could have been writing such inspired screenplays as this one!

At some point in the future, I must look deeper into how this came about. Right now, however, I’d rather move on before my brain blows a fuse.

If I had to sum up the entire film in a nutshell, I would point to the “dueling pianists” scene between India and Charlie. This scene in itself is evidence of a master filmmaker at work. Leaving aside the gorgeous camerawork and the pitch-perfect editing, this sequence shows indescribably great work from Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Clint Mansell. The whole scene is a battle of wits through music, brilliantly expressed by the actors and the music they’re playing. I so badly wish I could describe the characters’ various maneuvers, using different sounds and movements to counter or overpower each other. And all of this is further illustrated by the expressions and body language of the two characters. It’s an absolutely brilliant sequence that must be seen to be believed.

Stoker is a brilliant film made by brilliant filmmakers. The actors are all perfectly cast, the music is top-notch, the visuals and sound design are all superb, and Park Chan-Wook is at the absolute pinnacle of his game. Though the pacing is rather slow at times, there’s always more than enough tension to see the movie through.

I am so thrilled to finally see a film this year that I can recommend without any reservations. Check this one out at your earliest convenience.

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