Suburbia has always been a fertile ground for slaughter. What is it that drives the horrors committed behind those perfectly manicured lawns and immaculate white picket fences? Is it all those failed dreams, those mouldering marriages and the suffocating sense of bourgeois conformity that ignites the homicidal rage? Anyone looking for answers to those questions in acclaimed director Park Chan-wooks first American film had best not hold their breath as there is little illumination offered in this grim psychosexual fable, the swiftly sculptured realisation of one member of the so-called Hollywood ‘Black List’s’ of the best 10 unproduced scripts that had been pinballing around the various studios for the past three years. In an effort to preserve the mystery I only watched the trailer for the film once despite linking to it here numerous times, I’ve gleaned that it had split opinion from festival screenings (particularly TIFF) and had been likened to a contemporary update of Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, his personal favourite of his 59 pictures. So whilst I got a flavour of what might be on offer I very little specifics about the movie’s plot or peccadilloes, other than a sense that a disturbingly mysterious murderous melodrama might be lurking on the edge of American Beauty town. I’m still not entirely convinced about Park Chan-wook, I quite liked his venerated but overrated ‘Vengeance’ trilogy well enough and was reasonably seduced by the overlong but amusingly bloody Thirst from a few years back, of course it was the currently being remade Oldboy which instantly catapulted him to global visibility beyond the fringes of international cult film fandom, the latter already being a sobering ten years old. His violent fables certainly have their strengths, he has a idiosyncratic and refreshing visual sense in tandem with an instinctive grasp of the creepy and uncanny, but his films tend to sprawl and sputter without really going anywhere, an element which I’m afraid to say hobbles Stoker’s subversive designs.
Whilst everyone seems to be going crazy about clumsy Oscar® pilferer Jennifer Lawrence can I stealthily suggest that we also keep an eye on the increasingly high-profile Mia Wasikowska as a future star to watch? In Stoker she is the jeopardous India Stoker, a troubled and isolated young girl brooding in a crepuscular Southern American town, a melancholy which is compounded when he father dies in a slightly suspicious car accident on her 18th birthday, a symbolic timing if ever there was one. Her mother Evelyn, portrayed with the trademark brittleness of this phase of Nicole Kidman’s supporting star career is aloof and distanced from the tragedy, and doesn;t hesitate to invite her husband’s brother Uncle Charley (big bad wolf Matthew Goode who clearly want to ‘eat them all up’) to stay with the bereaved duo whilst they get back on their feet. Neither Evelyn nor India were aware of their smouldering and mysterious relative until he arrived at the funeral and soon they both become attracted to him in symbiotic repulsive and uncontrollable ways, with its fairytale, fable like qualities Stoker is clearly a film yearning for metaphysical, symbolic density, and although this is achieved its at the expense of any emotional or motivational integrity.
It’s always fascinating to see foreign filmmakers of note transplanted to the meat grinder of the Hollywood studio system as it stands today, either blessed or cursed with all the fantastic toys and tools which Welles famously called the ‘the best playground a boy could imagine’, with a crop of internationally established star personas to populate their canvasses and first class special effect artisans to ameliorate their imaginations, their oblique glances at material and customs just prove to be a rejuvenating shot in the arm for ghettoized genres. Stoker is very much a Park Chan-wook film, with its fuliginous look and off-kilter production design, its symbolic use of colour and careful arrangement of visual symbol, it’s lurking and occasional very literal iconography, the problem as with his other films is that he erects this wonderfully fertile environment around which the plot and storyline waddle around in pregnant expectation, but the story and plotting are stillborn, particularly in Stoker with its rather botched and confusing finale. Park clearly has a fascination with buried secrets and obscured pasts which are concealed throughout his work, but like his indigenous Korean work a visual brilliance and atmospheric aura can’t completely overwhelm inadequate narratives and philosophical obscurity. At times I was reminded of Twin Peaks with a visit to an Edward Hoppersque diner, the next the entire incredulity stretching plot is revealed in a dramatically neutered flashback.
Like Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt which screenwriter Wentworth Gillman has confirmed was his core inspiration the film revolves around a young girls coming of age and her blossoming sexuality, what Hitch had to cheerily allude and suggest back in the Forties doesn’t require any coy metaphors in todays permissive era, but the film keeps these elements submerged in the metaphorical background and dresses India’s tale as a gothic fantasy, giving weight to Wasikowska’s disaffected and elfin performance. Some images breed symbolic succor but we never uncover the core of these characters or caress their passionate drives, there is no sustenance to gnaw upon as to why India or Evelyn would surrender to Uncle Charley’s incestuous charms other than them being up for a bit of how’s your (dead) father. Goode is effective enough as the creepy Uncle who smolders with sexually laced dialogue and predatory wandering eyes, Kidman is her usually highly strung Icemaiden who might just thaw under the hands of a ravishing beast. The always terrific Clint Mansell conducts a lightly lurking score which soundtracks India’s psychological lethargy, although one admires his aural tinkering one speculates on just how original hire Philip Glass could have enhanced the films melodic qualities. As I watched this movie with a creeping, slippery disinterest I was struck by the thought that this is the kind of film that Tim Burton should be making if he ever grows up and decides to make films for adults, and takes the plunge in optioning partially original material beyond the four quadrant marketing holy grail, although he seems to have completely abandoned that future path of breadcrumbs through the dangerous woods. In the meantime fans of brooding, suburban fairy tales will have to make do with the intriguing yet isolating seduction of Stoker, another rung in the ascent of Mia Wasikowska’s ascent to stardom.