Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Stoker: Mounting Dread, Erotic Tension

By David Luhrssen
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 Stoker dispenses with the most common Hollywood convention: the movie as a transparent window of realism. The film by South Korea’s internationally esteemed director Park Chan-wook (out on Blu-ray and DVD) is almost as stylized as Kabucki theater, a masterful construction of foreshadows and visual rhymes. Stoker is a film of uncomfortable silences, mounting dread and erotic tension. It’s a psychological thriller hovering near the supernatural; its name alludes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, not for vampirism (although blood is drawn) but for the gothic subtext of dangerous, transgressive sexuality in enclosed, claustrophobic settings.

Stoker’s troubled protagonist, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), is an unhappy adolescent from a wealthy family dwelling in a gated estate at the edge of an unnamed American town. A virginal high school senior, apparently friendless and smarter than all her classmates, India is close to her father, a prominent architect. After he dies in a freak car crash, she turns sullen and unresponsive. India is already alienated from her mother Evelyn, played with cool, sensual flightiness by Nicole Kidman, and wary of the previously unsuspected relative who materializes at dad’s funeral. Uncle Charlie is played by Matthew Goode, his unarticulated menace concealed beneath the polished charm of a world traveler whose passport is stamped with mystery. He’s an excellent chef but doesn’t touch the meals he prepares. Anthony Perkins could have played Uncle Charlie in an earlier age; the character’s name alludes to the relative with dreadful secrets who turns up in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

India is an odd child in other ways; she has keen eyesight and awareness; her acute sense of hearing can pick out voices from across the distance of the buggy woods. What she begins to overhear is unsettling, especially Charlie’s erotic overture toward her mother, who responds flirtatiously, as if he is the ghost of her husband as he was before their relations grew distant. There’s more Hamlet than Dracula in Stoker, and a rippling Elektra complex runs deep below the screenplay by Anglo-American actor-writer Wentworth Miller. Charlie seems to stalk India. People begin to disappear. Something unsettling stirs.

Stoker artfully calls attention to itself as a film, subtly reminding viewers of the particular characteristics of cinema in scenes such as India’s reminiscence of childhood. Her father gave her a pair of saddle shoes on each birthday and the shoes in her mind’s eye diminish in size as she regresses in memory. Wasikowska is ideally cast—the eyes in her pale Victorian doll’s face darken in reaction to the horrors of an unspeakable adult world. No concession is made to the lie of adolescent innocence. India doesn’t just endure sexual bullying in her high school. She strikes back.

The plot may tempt logic, but so does life. Stoker is distinguished by the deep intensity of its mood, which is not surprising, given Chan-wook’s history. He was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

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