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Non-Review Review: Stoker

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Stoker is, without spoiling anything, essentially a vampire movie without a vampire. It’s a psychological thriller with a decidedly charged sexual undercurrent. It’s also a story of the things we keep secret, the dangers of blood and unwholesome desires. Park Chan-wook does an excellent job adapting Wentworth Miller’s screenplay for film, and the result is a strange and macabre beauty, a film that is occasionally a little too ethereal for its own good, but remains compelling and uncomfortable viewing.

Shear terror...

Shear terror…

In form, Stoker resembles a vampire story. The title, to be fair, is a bit of hint. The central family shares a surname with the author who essentially codified perhaps the definitive vampire, reconciling generations of myths and folklore into a single powerful volume. However, there are more similarities to be found. Charlie Stoker, the mysterious visitor who arrives for his brother’s funeral, certainly has a few traits in common with the undead. It’s not just Matthew Goode’s powerful (and creepy) sexuality oozing out of the screen either, nor the character’s ability to appear and disappear at will, sight unseen.

In a scene familiar to anybody who has read Dracula, Charlie joins his sister-in-law and his niece for dinner – however he doesn’t eat a bite himself. He might feel comfortable wandering around in daylight, but he wears shades to protect him from the sun. He offers his niece, India, a glass of red wine. The symbolism is quite clear. Indeed, he apparently even shares the Count’s ability to predict the weather. When the sun is shining, he offers India an umbrella. “It’s going to rain,” he advises her. She refuses to accept it. Naturally, he’s correct, but he hangs the umbrella on the gate to give her some measure of shelter.

"... come play with us."

“… come play with us.”

There’s also the simple fact that Charlie is apparently an exceptionally sensitive individual. While Stoker generally steers clear of the paranormal, we discover that both Charlie and India have the ability to “see what others cannot see, hear what others cannot hear.” As such, everything is extremely sensuous to them. India refuses to even touch her mother. Later on, a duet on the piano turns into an almost sexual experience. There’s a very clear undercurrent to the story, one that becomes quite clear to the story early on.

Indeed, this is perhaps how Stoker most resembles a vampire story. It unites sex and death in a way that one associates with the bizarrely sensuous undead. Charlie arrives in his niece’s life shortly after her eighteenth birthday. He offers her alcohol, which is one rite of passage into adulthood. Occasionally the symbolism feels a little too obvious. Forced to defend herself at school, India wields a sharpened pencil. It’s almost like a stake. One make-out scene cuts away to a shot that includes both a train and a rocket.

In the Nic(ole) of time...

In the Nic(ole) of time…

Of course, you could conceivably make an argument that stories about vampires arose in folklore as a means of dealing with very real dangers that we couldn’t quite express. Historians have established links between serial killers (and paedophiles) and allegations of werewolves. Stoker, perhaps, offers a story anchored in the real world that could perhaps have inspired the creation of a mythical monster to explain the more distorted and uncomfortable aspects.

Stoker is full of lies that are more comfortable than truth. These are people who literally bury their sins, and who favour romantic reimaginings. When Charlie arrives, there’s a lot of fanciful gossip about where he might have been, but those people who actually know refuse to talk about it. Stoker is very fond of offering a distorted version of events, only to give us the complete picture in a little while. It’s an approach that could be frustrating (and, indeed, is occasionally a bit much). Thankfully, the film benefits from the skill of Park Chan-wook, who does an excellent job offering a disturbing tale of family dysfunction. Not that anybody ever doubted his ability to do so.

Relative danger...

Relative danger…

Park Chan-wook has a gift for revealing things that are different from how they originally appear. It sound like a basic directorial skill, and a mandatory talent in any director working in suspense. Unfortunately, it’s a rare talent. The notion that Stoker is toying with its audience would make it insufferable in the hands of a lesser director. Instead, Park Chan-wook is available to guide us through the somewhat labyrinthine schemes, plots and reveals, and he does so with a deft hand.

In fact, he gives Stoker a rather beautiful and fitting style. While mobile phones are a vital part of the story and the world of Stoker, the rest of the film seems to take place in something like the fifties in New England. Certainly, Charlie dresses like a proper young gentleman and drives a convertible. Ice cream is served in those containers that look like hat boxes. There’s really nothing here apart from the occasional reference to a mobile phone that dates the story. It feels rather timeless and ambiguous, which works remarkably well.

A Goode brother-in-law...

A Goode brother-in-law…

Park Chan-wook has as gift for movement and for uncertainty. Several of the scene compositions in Stoker are visually stunning, and the director never wastes space. A conversation in two adjoining bedrooms is beautifully shot, even after one participant closes their door to the landing. At one point, Nicole Kidman’s hair morphs into long grass. At another point, a late-night conversation in a playground is visually delightful, as India is constantly moving, while the camera seems to be in complete control.

The cast is pretty fantastic as well here. Matthew Goode demonstrates a remarkable talent for playing vague sinister (yet handsome) young men of wealth and power. It’s a fairly tight niche, but it suits him perfectly. Charlie is just as unnerving and as unsettling as he needs to be. However, this is very much Mia Wasikowska’s show. The young actress has been impressive ever since she first appeared on the radar. Wasikowska seems to relish the opportunity to play against the girlish archetype she has become associated. India might resemble some of Wasikowska’s previous characters – indeed, you could make a convincing argument that she’s a dark mirror to Alice – but she also grow up.

Touching...

Touching…

Stoker is pretty fantastically put together. Glen Trew’s sound mix is fantastic, creating a genuinely unnerving impression of what India and Charlie must hear all the time. Clint Mansell provides a subtly unnerving score. Thérèse DePrez provides an absolutely stunning production design, giving the whole film a slightly unsettling off-kilter property that works rather effectively.

The only real problem with Stoker is the way that it insists of curving and bending once every five minutes. Luckily, the script is strong enough to support this approach, and Park Chan-wook is a director perfectly suited to it, but there are times when it all feels more absurd that unsettling. Still, these moments are few and far between and – for the most part – Stoker is triumph. Unsettling, unnerving, uncompromising. It’s a dark and sinister piece of film, but it’s a superbly crafted piece of cinema.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

2 Responses

  1. Great review, I throughly enjoyed Stoker. I recently did my own review of it on my film blog I just started. I would appreciate it greatly if you could check my stuff out, thanks.

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