I remember how excited I was when it was announced that John Woo would direct Mission Impossible II. I’m a huge fan of his pre-U.S. work, such as Hard Boiled, and I thought Face Off was diabolically trashy. The first Mission Impossible was criticized as being too confusing (a charge I still don’t understand), and Woo was to bring his guns-blazing brilliance to the franchise.
That didn’t work so well. Yes, it made a ton of money, as anything with the words “Tom Cruise” and “Mission Impossible” stamped on it will. But the movie itself was horrible. It was like a collection of over-stylized John Woo clichés (can the man have people shoot each other without doves appearing amid the bullets?) resulting in a big dumb mess of a movie. As one of my pals likes to point out, how can you have a movie where the heroes face a set deadline yet you NEVER SHOW A CLOCK?
So on the one hand, when I heard Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy, one of my favorite films, was going to make his first English-language flick, I was excited. On the other hand, I met the news with some trepidation, worried that I might be Woo-ed once again.
Fortunately, that was not the case. The word “Hitchcock” got thrown around a lot of reviews for this film, and I can see why. The deliberate pacing, the tightly wound characters, the sudden bursts of madness and violence. It’s not hard to make connections between Stoker and Hitchcock, particularly Psycho. Chan-wook’s brilliance is that Stoker does a satisfactory job of being an homage without becoming derivative, maintaining its own unique vision with dribs and drabs of the horror master’s classic thrown in.
The story is about the Stoker family and starts the day of India’s (Mia Wasikowska) 16th birthday, which coincides with the day of her father’s death. India is a favorite of her father, who gives her a pair of saddle shoes for every birthday, his attempt to preserve her youth and innocence. The innocence of his youth was shattered when his middle brother, Charlie, killed their youngest brother, then only a toddler, and he is determined nothing like that will happen to India.
India and her mother know nothing of Charlie’s (Matthew Goode aka Ozymandias of Watchmen) violent history and have never met him until the day of her father’s funeral, when he shows up at her home and starts to make nice with India’s mom, the repressed, delusional and bitter Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Charlie starts to worm his way into Evelyn’s heart and bed, becoming a younger, more attentive version of his brother. At the same time, Charlie begins to stalk India, attempting to become her confidante. The madness spirals downward from there.
The movie does occasionally suffer from over-stylization, which, admittedly, is Chan-wook’s weakness (see his Three Extremes contribution, Cut). But those are brief moments. Overall, Chan-wook’s vision – which involves plenty of unique framing techniques that emphasize small details which reveal much – works well.
The performances elevate Stoker, even in its weaker moments. We never really know if India’s murderous feelings have developed because of her relationship with Uncle Charlie, or if Uncle Charlie’s tutelage merely helped reveal the killer within. India’s coming of age is awkward and uneasy, but most importantly, believable. Goode’s restrained performance almost seems too pat until it comes time to unmask the predator under the surface. The glint in Charlie’s eyes when he starts to realize that India is blossoming under his guidance is disturbing and dead on. And how Kidman wasn’t at least nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award shows just how foolish – and commerce-driven – the Academy is. Kidman is the ultimate wealthy elitist, literally living in a world of her own creation on the top floor of her home, drinking pricey wine and joyful in the fact that her inattentive husband has been replaced by a younger, more virile version of himself. When she starts to lose her grip on Charlie, losing him to her daughter, the resentment and jealousy reveal just how poisoned Evelyn’s soul really is.
Step into Stoker, and enjoy the madness.