Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review: "Stoker" is an Eerily Wonderful Coming of Age Story

Mia Wasikowska
With the unfortunate revelation that there isn't any movie even worthy of speculating Oscar Buzz this week, I have decided to finally write a review for director Chan-wook Park's Stoker, a film that I heavily have endorsed on this blog, but never have specified why. It is a marvelous film, and one that is bizarre enough to not be considered for some sort of award. This is notably thanks to Park, whose catalog includes the much buzzed about and easily deserved praise for Oldboy. In his English-language debut, he tackles a coming of age story in one of the weirdest, most surreal ways possible. What makes his approach more authentic than any of his competitors?

It is best that I not regale you with too much plot. I do not want you to even watch a trailer. Please see this movie with a clean slate. Not only will this help to improve your experience of the movie, but hopefully understand why it is that I consider it one of the year's best. Unlike Spring Breakers, which relies more on visuals, there is a narrative here that twists and turns into this dark, surreal third act that may be one of the best experiences that I have personally had at the theaters this year.

Without spoiling anything, the plot begins with India (Mia Wasikowska) dealing with the grief of her father, whom she had a close connection to. During the grieving process, she tries to get along with her mother (Nicole Kidman) and her uncle (Matthew Goode), who try to help this quiet, reclusive girl live a normal life. Through all of the piano lessons and journeys through the house, a lot of bizarre events happen that cause her to become aware of her father's real identity and she soon finds a deep, perverse relationship with her uncle that shatters her worldview.

What makes this film so much more than another teen angst story is the plot. This isn't a journey through depression, but more the evolution of a character into a metaphorical adult through the loss of innocence. Mia Wasikowska's blank, humdrum face is the perfect character to deliver this as she almost feels like she is drifting from scene to scene, looking for a reason to exist. While there is disconnect with her mother, Nicole Kidman turns in a great performance that is somehow a devious mislead and overall captivating performance. Even Matthew Goode does a solid job playing a creepy uncle. Still, this is Wasikowska's film, and her subtle flourishes as a performer allow her to seem almost in gaze as she witnesses the world moving around her. In fact, it is hard to really understand her. Is she disturbed? Is she happy? There's plenty of questions to be raised by her silence.

The one thing that transferred almost beautifully is Chan-wook Park's directorial style. Known for his kinetic scenes and making the camera almost feel like another character, everything feels off kilter. With rapid zooms and some of the most inspired transition shots of the year, his flourishes drip into this neo-gothic tale so perfectly that it creates an atmosphere that is simultaneously beautiful and sort of dangerous. That is the world that India lives in, and it is a convincing landscape that gives the movie a lush feel, especially in the dryer points.

The film's script doesn't worry about being as entertaining. While the opening monologue by India is a thing of art, the first portion of the movie is not as engaging. Wentworth Miller's debut script is more invested in the slow reveals. The introductory portion isn't all that engaging, but the details are almost too eerie to keep it from being a total waste. Along with smaller roles by Harmony Korine and Jackie Weaver, the first half only ramps you up for when the big reveals happen, which even then play out almost in a campy format.

Nicole Kidman
Stoker is not based off of the Bram Stoker creation. With that established, there is still something quite peculiar about India that begins revealing itself. As the character develops, the revelations become sillier and while that could lead to camp, Chan-wook Park treats it serious enough that none of the drama or tension is lost. This is especially important in the third act in which everything comes together in unexpected, yet brilliant manner. This is a film all about the reveals, and with a brilliant director, it works almost flawlessly.

Another important thanks must be given to composer Clint Mansell, who turns driving piano ballads into an eerie theme in the film. The chord progressions present a sense of lurking suspense around every corner. Even during a very memorable piano scene, the chords are representative of something more and that only goes to show how integral music is to this tale, even if it is only to add a tone to Park's atmosphere.

The film may not be boastfully scary, but it is in the subtlety that everything succeeds. In fact, very few films this year have been this engaging or original. Hopefully, this will get Wasikowska the exposure necessary to escape whatever misdeeds she received from Alice in Wonderland. At very least, it continues to establish her as one of the finer young performers working today. It is also a revelation that a film can feel this lively just by camera movement, a component desperately missing from American cinema. Stoker is one of those authentic films full of mystery and despair that it's a miracle that it works so gorgeously.

Left to right: Wasikowska and Matthew Goode
I loved Stoker, so there is no doubt that I wished this film found get the recognition that it deserves come Oscar season. I hate to keep harping it, but the release time frame is kind of unfortunate. Having come out in March, there is little chance that it will get the recognition, speaking that Nicole Kidman and Jackie Weaver are as close as this film has gotten to Oscar caliber. 

There's a small chance that it could happen, but even Chan-wook Park is going to have to fight for his vote. The film is divisive among viewers, though I cannot complain one iota about the direction. It is some of the most exciting and well shot stuff that I have seen in quite some time. There is an off chance that Park can get in on the simple fact that the Oscar race is getting wider. Not every Best Picture/Best Director nominee lines up anymore. Also, with director Michel Haneke's Amour landing him a Best Director nomination, it at least is recognizing foreign works. With that said, the film does get a little too dark to be a conventional nominee.

Of all categories, it may stand a chance in Best Original Screenplay the most, if just because it isn't the most bound to a time frame. Former nominees in the screenplay categories include In the Loop and Borat, which at very least should show you how broad of a selection the Academy tends to go for. Stoker should stand a chance because it has a lot of suspense and clever things going on. As I said before, that opening monologue is credit enough for a nomination. 

I would love to see Mia Wasikowska get nominated, but that depends on what the competition is. At 23, she is still relatively young and may be passed over for more seasoned vets. While Jennifer Lawrence's win for Silver Linings Playbook does negate this, it feels almost like it was done out of favoritism more than anything else. Still, her subtle, haunting performance is memorable enough that it will be a shame to see her passed over. Of course, it is too early to determine what the competition is, but I doubt it will be as good as this. Maybe Nicole Kidman can sneak in Best Supporting Actress, as she has been nominated three times and won Best Actress for The Hours. Still, this film would need more prestige to make it have the recognition that even her previous nominated film, Rabbit Hole, received.

Finally, I will probably be pushing this the hardest. Clint Mansell's score deserves an Oscar nomination so badly. After being shunned for Black Swan's inspired use of the ballet "Swan Lake," it feels like the Academy owes him. I am still angry over Thomas Newman's Skyfall Best Original Score nomination on sheer principal of reusing familiar harmonies and melodies. Also, as standalone music, Mansell's score is some of his best work and its driving force is really catchy and a nice touch to this neo-gothic tale that literally adds texture. So far this year, few original scores have done that. 

Still, I fear the worst for Stoker just because it isn't going to be as recognized as every other film out there. While the Golden Globes potentially could keep giving Kidman nominations (see: last year's The Paperboy), that is still months away and even that will prove to be a challenge if the film ever stands a shot at a nomination. It is a popularity contest, and very few people in this movie have that level of charisma. There's a chance it will get recognized for its ambition, but as a March release, it will sadly probably only live on through critic's top 10 lists. However, that score must get nominated. 

Do you feel that Stoker stands any chance of a nomination? Is Chan-wook Park's direction flawless enough to at least get him a Best Director nomination? Can Mia Wasikowska break the age barrier and get a nomination? Is Clint Mansell deserving of a nomination?

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