Film review of the psychological thriller about a policeman (Ethan Hawke) investigating why a father has no recollection of sexually abusing his daughter (Emma Watson), despite admitting to the crime.
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Director: Chan-wook Park. Fox Searchlight/Indian Paintbrush/Scott Free. (18)
Producers: Michael Costigan, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott.
Writers: Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson.
Camera: Chung-hoon Chung
Music: Clint Mansell.
Sets: Therese DePrez
Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jackie Weaver, Dermot Mulroney, Alden Ehrenreich, Phyllis Somerville, Ralph Brown, Lucas Till.
Shortly after the sudden death of her beloved father (Mulroney) on her 18th birthday, quiet and introverted India’s (Wasikowska) life is disrupted by the appearance of his creepy brother Charlie (Goode), a man whom she had never heard of. Her unstable, alcoholic mother (Kidman) is immediately attracted to him and, despite her initial revulsion, so is India, particularly when her suspicions about him killing their house-keeper and aunt are confirmed.
It isn’t often that something other than the visual imagery and performances in a movie form the backbone of my film review. I’m an ardent silent movie fan and will say a million times until everyone is bored of it, I’m with Alfred Hitchcock when he said “the visual is first, the oral supplementary”.
But it’s with the giddy delight of someone first discovering the magic of cinema that I report Stoker is an exception to this rule, containing some of the finest sound design and editing of any modern motion picture.
I don’t just mean the music, although Clint Mansell’s eerie, cold score, grand and operatic but with echoes of another bleak production (Silence of the Lambs, 1991) also hits the mark and complements the odd action perfectly. But it’s the background snap, crackle and pop, loaded with meaning, that impress the most and linger long after the closing credits have faded.
Wasikowska’s character is a quiet virgin whose sexual awakening is chronicled as the story progresses, but it’s the ingenious background noises that signal this more than Chung’s camera could ever reveal (though more of that later). Preparing food for her father’s wake, she rolls a hard-boiled egg around on a table, its shell breaking and crunching with deafening significance. Her first sip of wine sees her eyes open wide in delight, but drowned out by her slurps as she chugs the lot back heartily. After she and uncle Charlie have killed her would be rapist, she showers and masturbates with vigour thinking about him, the drops of water noisily splashing loudly around her.
It’s a difficult story to pull off on the big screen, especially when a mainstream American studio such as Fox is behind it and Park was a brave man to choose a story that encompasses fratricide, murder, consanguinity and incest. But then Park, the South Korean director noted internationally for his ultra-stylised violence in Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, is not your usual run of the mill director. He indulges his and cameraman Chung’s eye for painterly composition, eye-catching colour schemes (Kidman’s luscious strawberry blonde hair and key mood change outfits could have leapt straight out of old style Hollywood melodramas; Goode’s piercing blue eyes drain to a dull grey before changing back, the reds and oranges of Kidman’s house) and titillating visual motifs (the spider, clearly used to represent the arachnid uncle Charlie, scuttles across the floor and over Wasikowsa’s body before disappearing between her legs). This is a modern day Grand Guignol horror in the style of a perversely sexualised Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
Surprising to find Prison Break star Miller as the scribe behind this distinctive, wilfully bizarre coming of age romance. There are some juicy lines for his stars to get their teeth into and the characters are intriguing, though it may have more to do with the back room boys input that the film ends up as a stylish assault on the senses rather than a clever check-list of weirdness.
The performances are all commendably strange, possibly due to the fact no one seems to blink. You’ll find yourself hypnotised watching the wide-eyed and gorgeous Goode as the fox stalking this chicken coop. Wasikowska plays India as if she was a homicidal Wednesday Addams with a Daddy Complex but inebriate Kidman is the keenest of these players, managing to always appear slightly drunk, words vaguely slurred, bearing slouched, staggering a little. She’s pathetic but sympathetic at the same time.