The depths of dysfunction

- Preena Shrestha, Kathmandu
The depths of dysfunction

Jun 17, 2013-

Let me just say, I will watch just about anything with Mia Wasikowska in it. Although my first encounter with the young actress, as the protagonist in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland a few years ago, wasn’t exactly memorable, her incredibly moving performance in 2011’s Jane Eyre won me over completely, and I’ve since declared myself a fan. Both fragile and impervious, little girl and knowing woman-of-the-world by turn, Wasikowska is a constantly shifting mass of personas, difficult to pin down, a quality she uses to her advantage on screen. It certainly comes in handy in Stoker, the first of four movies she has scheduled for release this year, an ambient and engrossing psychological drama in which she’s paired up with Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode. The film represents the first English-language project for the South Korean director of The Vengeance Trilogy Park Chan-wook, known for stylish, operatic portrayals of extreme violence in his previous works. Although the brutality here is turned down a couple of notches, it’s not entirely absent either, and Park’s spot-on sensibilities to do with tone and timing—something that has won him the admiration of one Mr Quentin Tarantino—have rendered the film beautiful to look at, surprising for the most part, and very difficult to forget.

We are introduced to the quaint young India Stoker (Wasikowska) as she explores the rugged grounds of the family estate—an activity she indulges in with some regularity, we learn. India has just turned 18, and hidden somewhere among these well-trodden stretches of rocks and trees, like every year, is a present from her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney). But India soon discovers that this birthday is going to be a little different—her father has just met with an accident and passed away. And so, candles are quickly snuffed out, decorations shelved, and black attire pulled on as hasty funeral arrangements are made.

India’s mother Evelyn (Kidman) is naturally in a state over the entire ordeal, but she receives no comforting words or gestures from her daughter, who appears to have retreated further into herself; there is palpable hostility between the two and Richard’s death has only made the disjoint more evident. Their already complicated dynamics, however, are soon churned and stoked anew with the arrival of a surprise visitor (Goode), whose presence becomes the catalyst for a good many strange happenings in the Stoker house and the women’s lives. Although the proceedings are wonderfully abstruse at first—infused with a growing, maddening sense of dread—it all tumbles towards a climax wherein all is explained, albeit a little too simplistically, revealing a family burdened with secrets and tainted by dysfunction.

Wasikowska is expectedly brilliant in her bid as the angsty and alienated India. Clothed in conservative dresses and skirts, and withdrawn to extremes, she feels like someone from another era, perhaps even another planet. Fellow Australian Kidman offers a bright contrast to Wasikowska’s sullen avatar, with her fiery hair and clingy clothes, oozing sexual energy; the actress has shone in most things she’s been a part of and does the same here. And Goode mans the third corner of their unsettling triangle with ease, deftly embodying an always-smiling man of mystery, whose mind and motivations are ever in the shadows.

Park and his long-time associate, cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, certainly have an eye for the sumptuous and the jarring, and there are scenes and frames in Stoker that linger in the mind long after—a spider slowly journeying up a girl’s leg, the bloodied shavings of a pencil squelching out of a sharpener, a seductive duet played on a grand piano. The director demonstrates great control over mood and atmosphere, handing out information stingily and keeping us on the edge of our seats through most of the film. There is a deliciously oppressive, claustrophobic air surrounding events—characters pace around one another warily; meaningful looks are thrown back and forth; dialogues enunciated with measured intensity. What emerges then is a tense, absorbing film that owes as much to Park’s skills as it does to the strengths of the largely-effective script crafted by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller—his first screenwriting stint, in fact—as well as the added charms of an eerie and elegant score by Clint Mansell.

Stoker ultimately reveals a very simple structure, and might even feel a bit conventional in the way it is concluded, but the execution is so masterful that it is replete with sufficient thrills. Pulled by strong performances, gorgeous imagery and macabre drama, this is a coming-of-age story like no other, and represents an impressive induction into Hollywoodland for Mr Park.

Published: 18-06-2013 09:28

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