Thursday, March 21, 2013

Movie Review: Stoker

There is a delicate balance in film between telling a story through visuals and telling a story through plot. Or, to put the criticism in its more derivative form, film strives to dazzle while avoiding the dreaded label of "style over substance."

For every artiste like Terrence Mallick who succeeds at captivating the mind with little or no attention to exposition or dialogue, there's a dozen Avatars, Sucker Punches and The Spirits that sure, offer up some treats for the eyes but fall flat in every other measurable aspect.

Then there's Stoker, the first English-language film from director Chan-wook Park, which yes, suffers from rather wide logical leaps, plot holes and inexplicable character motivations and yet effuses a sense of effortless cool; it's own skittishness becoming part of the eerie narrative, spliced together in a controlled chaos that makes every minute itch with discomfort while drawing the viewer in.

In Stoker, Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Nicole Kidman star as daughter and mother India and Evelyn Stoker. The film begins on the day of India's 18th birthday, which coincides with the day her father Richard (Durmont Mulroney) dies in a car accident. At the ensuing funeral, an uncle that India never knew she had arrives out of the blue and agrees to stay at the family's estate while, we presume, mother Evelyn recovers from her mourning period.

The three family members make up the central drive of the film, and each is their own particular brand of unhinged. Kidman's Evelyn, who can barely drag herself out of bed until noon and harbors a thinly-veiled hostility to her daughter, immediately takes a shine to her late-husband's brother Charlie. Unclear is whether she is reeling from the death of her husband or subject to a mid-life crisis that existed long before the film's first scene, or both.

India, played with waif-ish minimalism by Wasikowska, is a soft-spoken specter, gliding about dazedly and afraid – or so we're told – of human touch. It's clear that her affections were placed disproportionately in her father, but again we are left to assume whether his death has caused her to withdraw further into herself or whether we are simply seeing the status quo.

Then there's Charlie, (Watchmen's Matthew Goode) an enigma hidden behind a boyish smile that straddles the line between innocence and mania.

What follows can't be described, out of respect to the mystery of the film as well as the simple fact that much of what takes place is largely inexplicable. The central question driving Stoker is not what will happen next, but rather what is happening now? Eventually answers are given, and yet viewers looking for the reason or purpose behind those actions – or why what happened, happened – will be left wanting.

But to a certain extent, the holes left unfilled by the screenplay (written by Prison Break's Wentworth Miller) are forgiven, or at the very least granted leniency, out of respect to the atmospheric creation of Chan-wook Park. He achieves the pulse and pervasive disquiet of a thriller while keeping the craft art-house and understated.

Most viewers will likely leave the theater scratching their heads asking "But, what?" or simply "Why?" For some, it will have been 90 minutes enjoyed and well-spent, for others it will not.

Grade: B

Stoker opens in limited release in Utah on March 22

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