28 February 2013

"We Are Not Responsible for What We Have Come To Be"

I am a sucker for films that lure me in with great musical choices in the trailer. Take Miss Bala, for example, which I thought was a good film but which I may never have ended up watching had it not been for the use of Saint Saviour's gorgeous song This Ain't No Hymn in its trailer. Similarly, I hadn't paid much attention to the posters and ads for Chan-wook "Oldboy" Park's new film Stoker until I caught the trailer recently and was struck by the use of the old Death in Vegas song, Dirge, to which I listened a lot back in the late '90s. Having read nothing about the film, based on its title and the ├╝ber-gothic poster, I thought it would be some sort of biopic of Bram Stoker. Although the title, which is also the name of the family in the film, won't be a coincidence, my guess wasn't very close.

As the film opens, it is the 18th birthday of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and her beloved father and best friend Richard (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a mysterious car crash. Her relationship with her emotionally unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), strained at best of times, becomes positively frosty at the funeral when Richard's long-lost younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) rocks up in his swanky convertible, not wearing black. Evie takes to the charismatic and intense Charlie immediately, and it isn't long before the three of them are dancing a tense little pas de trois around Stoker Towers (a beautiful, gothic mansion, complete with creepy basement, natch).

India has always been a loner, preferring to spend her days hunting in the woods with her father or playing the piano, rather than hanging out with her fellow pupils, who tease her for being weird. She resents her mother's budding relationship with Charlie, but is it because of the betrayal of her father so soon after his death or because she is jealous of her mother? There are other mysteries too. Even if Uncle Charlie has been "doing Europe" for over a decade, why has India never met him or even heard of him before? And why does her Aunt Gwen (Jacki Weaver) seem to hate him so much when she comes to visit? And who would have a grand, beautifully designed house with such a scary basement?

As the film develops, some of these questions are answered, and we begin to learn more about the Stokers, their secrets and their pasts. It isn't the kind of film where you are confronted with one huge plot twist after another. Instead, Park drags you in gradually, making you complicit in the characters' deeds and misdeeds. You think you see where things are going fairly early on—anyone who has seen the trailer will know that Charlie is not what he seems—but you can't be certain that there aren't other explanations until much later on. Not least because of the number of gothic hat-tips and call-outs that have been slipped into the movie, some of which are just that—clever references—and are, to some extent red herrings. There is more than a shade of Shadow of a Doubt in Stoker, and the trailer points more towards Lolita than Twilight.

Park's unique directorial style is fantastic in Stoker. The film is also visually impressive and in some ways reminds me of To the Wonder, what with the long, languorous shot of cornfields and flowing, pastel dresses blowing in the breeze. There is no twirling or dancing in Stoker, though. Just plenty of dark, intense stares, simmering resentment and oozing secrets. Oh, and a lovely Philip Glass score composed especially for the film. The story is told with a lot of flashbacks, dreams and possible hallucinations. Sometimes we will revisit a scene we have just seen but with slightly different details or outcomes. We mainly see through India's eyes, but it is unclear how much we can trust her story. She walks a fine line between being powerful and wise way beyond her years and being fragile, petulant and childish.

I read that Jodie Foster, Colin Firth and Carey Mulligan were originally cast as the three lead characters, and although I think they would have been even better, I thought all three leads were strong. I don't always like Nicole Kidman's performances, not least because she often plays very similar characters. Her Evie is perfectly brittle, martyred and just a tad unhinged; her diatribe to India, excepted in the trailer, isn't exactly that of a proud, loving mother, to say the least. Goode is also good, managing to make anything from putting away the ice cream to doing yard work seem seriously creepy. It is Wasikowska who steals the show, though, as a sort of Carrie White-meets-Oskar Schell in Wednesday Addams's clothing. India isn't always very nice and certainly isn't easy to understand, but Wasikowska allows us to empathise with her as her sexual awakening parallels her growing understanding of the secrets in her family's past. "We are not responsible for what we have come to be," she claims.

Stoker is a mysterious, slow-burning thriller, if that isn't too much of an oxymoron, and it isn't without its humorous touches. I was intrigued and engaged, and often surprised by the movie. I haven't seen Oldboy, but I'm now tempted to try it out.

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