Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Was driving fifteen miles into the dark post-apocalyptic nightmare of destitution and wild cannibalism called Pennsylvania worth it to see the new drama thriller "Stoker"?  Yes.  Yes it was.

First of all, "Stoker" is not a vampire movie.  I thought its title was a reference to "Bram Stoker", the author of the original "Dracula" novel, turns out none of the characters are vampires in any way.  Instead its a family drama film... starring murderers and psychopaths.  There are points where the movie tends to swerve into the horror genre, particularly with all the murders and mild hints of super human abilities, but it never becomes campy and it keeps its head high the entire running time, proudly creating a weird psychological adventure where you cannot be sure if the protagonist is any less insane than the apparent antagonist.  This is the first English-language film to be directed by Park Chan-wook, best known for directing the insane Korean movie, "Oldboy" and he actually did make a vampire film called "Thirst", which I haven't seen.

The title actually refers to the "Stoker Family".  If all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, the Stokers definitely need some special note for originally.  You aren't entirely sure what is going on behind the scenes, but it is clear that there is something terribly wrong with the Stoker family, and it doesn't end with the murder of the father of our heroine, India.  India's life is turned even more upsidedown by the arrival of her mysterious Uncle Charlie, this very handsome man that clearly has some kind of deep ulterior motive and is definitely not what he seems.  He also seems to be shacking up with her mother, played by a very horny Nicole Kidman, and you aren't quite sure what India's mother knows, or if she's a Gertrude to India's Hamlet.  And India herself is a very deep enigma, played with a creepy intensity by Mia Wasikowska.  She's just a little too quite and too focused, you can tell something is very off about her.

"Stoker" is easily the best movie I've seen so far in 2013, being a serious but very deliciously twisted tale of growing up.  Just what India grows up to be is part of the fun.  I'd say it isn't perfect though, there are a few stunningly well-produced scenes and great acting and directing all around, the script really doesn't make very much sense in the end, and much of it is muddled by red herrings - and I'm not even sure if those were intentional or not.  Still, this is a much heavier time at the movies than most of the manufactured non-controversial Hollywood stuff I've been watching all year, so it definitely stands out.

I guess I should start by discussing India.  From the very start, there's something "off" about her, as I mentioned.  The entire film is shot in an old house, with characters driving a very old car, and India dresses like its the 1950s, so I thought for quite awhile that this movie took place in that time period.  Actually no, she's just a strange loner at her school, largely without friends and mocked by boys*.  There's a lot to Mia Wasikowska's performance here, and a great deal of it comes from how the director shoots her.  In many early shots India looks like she could be no older than thirteen-years-old, and her character is quiet and withdrawn.  But later on, there are sprinkles of confidence and strength, which slowly change how she's shot, how she dresses, and mirrors her ultimate transformation into... well, what kind of woman she becomes really is the whole point of "Stoker", so I can't spoil that.

India is definitely going to be a controversial character for audiences of "Stoker".  I find myself to always be sympathetic to characters who do not click in normal society, like Ryan Gosling's character from "Drive", and India Stoker.  Its hard to actually explain her character in words, but she made sense to me somehow.  There's a clinical logic to most of what she does, which is hard to pull off in a movie where she's also the object of a predator in the form of Uncle Charlie.  She's both the hunter and the prey.  And many people are going to say that "Stoker" did not pull it off, I say it does.

Charlie mainly exists as a mysterious villainous presence, and its actually pretty disappointing when you discover how relatively mundane his motivations actually are, compared to the enigmatic performance his actor gives.  But he's really just a shade, more symbol of India's dark side than a real character.  Surprisingly one of the deepest characters, and at least the one that's closest to "normal" would be Nicole Kidman.  Her character seems to be on the verge of desperation, hiding her joy at her husband's death but unable to really connect to either Uncle Charlie or India.  And its hard to tell which character she's more jealous of as Charlie and India become more close.  Even as she tries to restart her life, Evelyn Stoker** seems like a character that's already been defeated.  As much as I liked India in "Stoker", I almost feel like Nicole Kidman should have been the star.

I'll relegate the details to a footnote to avoid spoilers. "Stoker"'s plot, honestly, has quite a few holes***, but I'd say the structure of the script is insignificant compared to the steady atmosphere of increasing tension and the intricate character connections.  There are a few moments where "Stoker" goes a too far and turns briefly into exploitation and gets unintentionally comical for me, so I'd hardly call this a perfect movie.  But I still think there is a lot to enjoy here in the delicious twisting of psychopathy.  "Stoker" is definitely worth seeing - if you can find a theater playing it.

* Except for a boy played by Alden Ehrenreich, the star of "Beautiful Creatures", the excellent Twilight rip-off that turned out to shockingly be a lot of campy fun.  And as a matter of fact, Mia Wasikowska from certain angles is a dead ringer for Alice Englert in that movie.  So for a moment, we have a teenager boy trying to court the strange dark-haired girl without friends with a family full of intrigue and mystery.  Then... this subplot goes a very different direction.  Still, I'm rather surprised I even remember "Beautiful Creatures", and in fact remember it so fondly.  I guess you could say that "Stoker" is an alternate universe "Beautiful Creatures".

** Thank god for modern internet and unlimited access to information, since I had no clue what Nicole Kidman's name was in this movie.

*** SPOILERS:  As it turns out, Uncle Charlie actually is a mental patient who murdered his baby brother when he was ten - which was a very hideous moment for me watching this movie.  He gets out on his own, and India's father tries to set him up with own life - far away from his.  This drives Charlie over the deep end since he's been obsessed with India for eighteen years now.  First of all:  Why is Charlie obsessed with India when they've never met?  How could he possibly know that they would turn out to be a strange pair of kindred spirits?  He can't know that.  Second:  How did Nicole Kidman not know about Charlie?  The only family at all is this one elderly aunt who Charlie takes care of pretty easily.  But you'd think one person at that funeral would mention who Charlie is and what he's capable of.  Third:  Their housekeeper was spying on India for Charlie for years and leaving the girl presents as part of Charlie's sick obsession.  Why on earth would she do that?  Fourth:  This means that Nicole Kidman was not in on the plot at any stage, which is definitely not how this movie was staged at any point.  Its implied she knows much more than she's letting on from the beginning, and now she knows nothing?  That's just confusing.  (And honestly, mental patient?  That's the best they can do?  I could think of nineteen better twists in five minutes!  Why couldn't Uncle Charlie have just been a damn vampire??)

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