You Need To Do Something Bad To Stop Yourself From Doing Something Worse: Stoker (2013)

Here goes my first in theater viewing experience for a film released in 2013, and boy could it have been anything more welcomed and wonderful than Chan-wook Park's English language debut Stoker.  I had already planned on viewing and blogging about this film given the skew towards Korean cinema that has occurred since my beginning graduate school, however, it works doubly in that it is also a film centrally focused on a woman, or in the case of this narrative a relationship between a mother and daughter, more than justifying its inclusion on this month of women in film.  Stoker, based solely on its trailer alone, promised to be an intense and gripping psychological thriller, with expert actors and all the insanity one would hope from Park's legacy.  I was admittedly worried that the American framework would actually hinder Park's sensibilities as he would be required to adhere to the expectations and safety of studio work, however, this is far from the case.  Stoker, while certainly no, Oldboy, manages to exceed in intensity, break the conventional frameworks of cinema, to the point of purposefully freezing frames, not to mention having a narrative so incomprehensible, multi-tiered and non-linear that it does not simply suggest a reviewing, but assuredly demands it occur.  It is a pleasure to see a Park film in English, not that I do not fully enjoy his work, even when I have to read subtitles, but the extra layers of humor, darkness and subversion that emerge merely within the way lines are delivered added to the experience of his work twofold.  In its decidedly non-traditional structure, Stoker rejects the traditional storytelling arc of cause and effect leading to a climax that is succinctly solved.   Instead, Stoker begins at a swelling point and expands continually, always seeming as though it is ready to burst at the seams, and even when viewers are led to the moment where they could assume the narrative has taken its last violent twist, they are quickly betrayed their comfort when the madness of the film pushes one step further.  If Stoker is an early entry into 2013, I am absolutely elated as to what else will emerge  to be its equal, and even surpass.

Stoker focuses on a family reeling from the death of their patriarchal figurehead Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) after his apparent suicide.  While death never proves to occur at a good time, it is particularly problematic for young India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) whose birthday also fell on the same  day.  An already reclusive girl, India goes into a full scale withdrawal, only worsened by her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her attempts at overbearing forces of unity.  The two find it troublesome to navigate a world after the loss of their husband and father, yet when Richard's brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears the family adjusts to an eerie change, because this is the first time India has ever learned of Charlie's existence.  His impending presence is already problematic in his clear indifference to the absence of his late brother, as well as his immediately burgeoning relationship with the widowed Evelyn.  However, while it is clear that Evelyn is far more affectionate towards Charlie, he, nonetheless, engages in her advances half-heartedly, all the while making awkward passes at India. When various individuals go missing, particularly Charlie and Richard's aunt Gwendolyn (Jackie Weaver) India begins to grow suspicious, an act whose engagement leads to her growing disconnect at school, coming to head when she attacks a boy with a sharp pencil.  In the process, Charlie becomes even more protective and invasive in India's life, even saving her from a near rape, by choking the aggressor to the point of breaking his neck, something India reflects upon fondly.  However, when suspicions towards Charlie mount, India does more research, and discovers that Charlie's past is incredibly problematic, leading to Charlie attempting to convince that they should escape the house and move to New York.  However, Charlie realizes that, in order, to successfully move they must get rid of Evelyn, an act that India reacts to in an unusual manner, leading to her own movement out of the house into the world, closing the film in a baffling yet incredibly intense way.

I feel almost a fraud in my consideration of actually analyzing this film, because to be fair there is a lot going on, particularly in relationship to authority and undermining power.  Firstly, however, I want to make note of the ways in which Park is clearly borrowing from many of his predecessors, whether it be the tips of the hat to Hitchcock via Matthew Goode's inspired rendition of Anthony Perkins circa Psycho, or some rather clever reconsiderations of David Lynch psychotics laying right under the veneer of perfect middle class image.  What these two directors, and certainly Park share, is a deep-seeded resentment for unquestioned authoritative figures, particularly those of the patriarchal figure, in fact, it is no surprise that in all three directors' works women play key roles in plots alterations or doing away with negative forces.  However, Stoker takes the complexities of navigating such a world to new levels when he displays other women engaging in the oppression for their own selfish advancement.  I am, of course, referring to Evelyn who sees the emergence of Charlie as a perfect avenue for her to do away with the burdens of her dead husband, for whom she possessed very little love, as well as India, who she comes to loathe as a result of Charlie diverting his affections towards her.  India, unlike the other characters, seems always and at once aware of every vindictive and dangerous force in the world around her, whether it be some gross and easily enraged football players, or their friend who pretends to mean well, only to turn out to be equally violent.  India also sees symbols of authority as a threat, something that is initially foreshadowed with a cop who visits the Stoker home on a disappearance investigation, but figures again prominently into the film later.  It is, instead, when India must clearly make a statement about a person who is outright bad that she falters, yet, just as her father taught her when she was young, acts that may seem bad at the moment, could well prove to prevent something far worse from occurring.

Key Scene:  The shower scene...it is intensity taken to a new level.

This is the first real film of 2013 for me and it is quite excellent.  As I stated earlier, if this is a sign of the year to come, I am ready to embrace it passionately.

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