Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Mia Wasikowska in "Stoker" (2013)

Scene from Stoker
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker
Film: Stoker (2013)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actress category (2013):
-Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) *Winner
-Amy Adams (American Hustle)
-Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
-Judi Dench (Philomena)
-Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

So far in The Runner-Ups, I feel like I have chosen viable candidates that have had a substantial impact or legacy. In the case of this week's pick, it isn't exactly true. Mia Wasikowska is a young actress whose career is, in most optimistic senses, the beginning of its potential. For those who only think of movies related to Oscar nominees, she had a memorable supporting role as the daughter in The Kids Are All Right. Of course, Julianne Moore and Annette Benning stole the show in that film as the normalized version of a gay couple. The children in the story didn't stand a chance of making it to Oscar night. Beyond this, Wasikowska is likely best known for (if "best known" is attributed to box office) leading Disney's Alice in Wonderland series, of which grossed over a billion dollars and helped to start the live action remake trend. Of course, nobody is calling Tim Burton's 2010 interpretation a masterpiece. I for one consider it among his worst. So, why do we care about Wasikowska again, especially with the Alice sequel Through the Looking Glass currently getting mauled at the box office?

The truth is that, pound for pound, Wasikowska is one of the best young actresses currently working. I admit that she doesn't have the best success rate when it comes to mainstream cinema. Crimson Peak notoriously bombed, and early prognostication for Through the Looking Glass is seeing the film bomb worse than The Lone Ranger. There's a large part of me that worries that she will not get her moment to become a thing because of her lack of reassuring box office merit. In fact, it makes me sort of wish that the Alice in Wonderland film was better just so that I could make a stronger case for his skill. As it stands, she doesn't have the "that" role yet that even suggests conventional Oscar-worthy acting. Even then, it's strange that among my preferential young actresses (Saorise Ronan and Brie Larson are also on that list), she is the only one who has yet to be nominated for any role.

So, what is the point of this week's The Runner-Up? If anything, I chose to tackle Wasikowska in hopes that it would encourage readers to check out her other work. In this case, I have chosen to discuss Stoker, which earlier this week I named as one of my 10 favorite films since 2012. I admit that it's an unconventional film that mixes drama, camp, and horror into a peculiar package from director Park Chan-Wook, for the first time in English. It's more of a meditative film, and one that finds the unnerving horror more in the tone than outright scares. By the end, nothing shocking has necessarily happened, but it digs under your skin and reveals a subtle transformation that only the best type of actors can achieve. For me, it's one of the few outright masterpieces of the decade so far, and it owes a large part to Wasikowska's lead performance.

In the film, she plays India Stoker. Her father has just died and she is visited by a relative (Matthew Goode) whose very presence is unnerving. He talks with a hushed manner and seems to appear at inappropriate times. India also has to deal with her mother (Nicole Kidman), who is jealous of India and is also having an affair with you know who. The drama from there comes to embody her transition into womanhood, as symbolized through bad influences, psychotic means, and a dark family past that unveils in the third act. Everything about the film is wrought with tension and hidden secrets. Despite sharing its name with Bram Stoker (he of "Dracula" fame), it has little to do on the surface with vampires and more to do with a certain blood lust that forms as India has to deal with peer pressure and a doubting mother at home.

The thing that works is that Wasikowska never overacts a moment. If anything, she starts off distant yet observant. She is timid, with the camerawork cleverly turning mundane tasks such as crushing an egg into strange tension. Even the transitions that artfully turn waves of hair into into the next scene have a certain appeal. It isn't until the violence kicks in and India becomes conflicted that things change in her character. Suddenly, she is awoken, trying to keep herself form fully embracing a life of violence. Instead, she tries to use it to find out more from the house guest who threatens the humble abode. By the end, the transition is so slight that you have to commend the efforts of Wasikowska for being able to go from sane to psychotic without making it obvious.

If one needed a single scene to understand why Wasikowska is an underrated talent (and Goode for that matter in the right role), it's one in which she is playing piano with her house guest. It's a lovely melody, and one that sees them both playing at odds, slowly working towards the center. Even if it's just them touching a piano, there's a lot that can be read in their body language. India isn't just feeling intimidation from him, but something even more surreal and personal. By the end, there's a feeling of violation and shock that comes across in her performance. In a film that adds doses of pulp at every possible turn, it's a moment that is pure cinema, choosing to reflect their complicated and maybe inappropriate partnership that will develop further later on. However, the music is beautiful and in the moment the scene is astounding. Of course, Chan-Wook is just great at directing and shifting the horror away from the obvious at every possible turn.

It is difficult to present this as a legitimate entry in The Runner-Ups, largely because I understand why it wouldn't be nominated. It's overtly sexual at times, and the first viewing for most people is disconcerting. I didn't actually love this film until about the third time. However, it embodies in one film why Wasikowska is secretly among the best performers right now. She doesn't have to act that hard to convey a wide range of emotions and internal conflicts. She merely has to show up and do her thing. Of course, she is often better in genre films like Only Lovers Left Alive and The Double more than her dramatic output like Tracks or Jane Eyre (which are still good). Still, she gives her all and at very least cannot be accused of turning in a dull performance. Of course, anyone can throw the "What about Alice in Wonderland?" excuse at me and be kind of right. Then again, she does a good job given the limitations of the tone and quality of the script. Also, I firmly believe that nobody does their best work in franchise films, so keep that in mind.

As I see advertisements for Through the Looking Glass, I find myself hopeful yet again that this will be the film that gets her to that next level of star power. If nothing else, I am relieved that she is continuing to do her best work right now, even if it's under the radar. One day I hope she gets a break, though her back-to-back "bombs" aren't necessarily encouraging. Still, I hope that anyone going to see Through the Looking Glass this weekend will greatly consider giving "that dull actress" who is leading the film a second chance. She is far more interesting than the material that she is presented with. I can vouch for that.

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