Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/28/13 18:09:29

"But I Hardly Know Her. . ."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When it was announced that Korean director Chan-wook Park, the man behind such twisted cinematic visions as "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Thirst" and the international cult favorite "Oldboy," had signed on to make "Stoker," his first film in the U.S., many of his fans no doubt wondered whether his distinct brand of filmmaking--stylish, bloody and deeply perverse--could possibly make the transition or if he would be just another example of a unique voice brought over to make a movie but denied the chance to utilize the very gifts that made him worthy of note in the first place. To that end, let me just state right now that this is most certainly not the case because "Stoker" is just as bizarre as anything that he has previously done--with its emphasis on blood-soaked secret pasts, transgressive sexuality and twisted family ties that choke as well as bind, it almost feels as if it was tailor-made for him. It is so strange in so many ways that even though we are only a couple of months into 2013, I cannot easily imagine another major release that will flat-out alienate as many viewers, especially those unfamiliar with his past work, as this one almost assuredly will.

Set in the Deep South, possibly only a couple of towns over from where the action in "Beautiful Creatures" was set, "Stoker" stars Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, a shy and quiet girl who lives in a rambling mansion with her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney), with whom she goes on long hunting trips, and mother Evelyn (NIcole Kidman), with whom she has a relationship that could politely be described as strained at best. As the story opens, it is India's 18th birthday and on this day, tragedy strikes--having suddenly gone out of state on unknown business, Richard is killed in a mysterious car crash. At the funeral, India spies a stranger (Matthew Goode) standing at a distance at the proceedings and later on at the reception, she is shocked to discover that he is her heretofore unknown Uncle Charlie, who has been traveling the world for the past two decades.

For most people, at least those with access to Turner Classic Movies, the sudden arrival of a relative named Uncle Charlie should set off any number of internal alarms but it appears that the Stokers let their cable subscription last--Evelyn, in particular, is charmed and immediately invites him to stay with her and India for the time being. India, on the other hand, is not as easily swayed and looks upon Uncle Charlie with a healthy amount of suspicion, especially when her mother begins flirting with him with what even Hamlet's mother might have deemed to be an unseemly degree of haste. And yet, India is intrigued with her long-lost uncle--even as people who seem to know more about him than they are willing to let on begin disappearing without a trace--and something begins to develop between them even as she makes some increasingly disquieting discoveries about who Charlie is, where he has really been after all this time and why he is so interested in her.

Although the title might lead some viewers to think that they are in for vampire-related shenanigans, the chief artistic influence on display in "Stoker" is clearly that of the late, great Alfred Hitchcock. In putting together his screenplay, writer Wentworth Miller (yes, the guy from "Prison Break") has compiled more references, homages and outright lifts from the filmography of the Master of Suspense than Mel Brooks managed to come up with in "High Anxiety"--there is even a key shower scene that blends together images of sex and death in audacious and unexpected ways while signaling an important shift in the narrative trajectory. However, it seems that Miller was so concerned with cramming in as many Hitchcock references as the screen can hold that he neglected to provide a coherent narrative from which to display them. Simply put, the story is a strange mishmash of inexplicable events, sprung rhythms and characters who respond to the increasingly baffling events in equally nonsensical ways--after a while, it almost seems as if the screenplay is boldly challenging viewers to make sense of what is going on or what it is all supposed to mean. The whole screenplay is a mess to such a degree that for most ordinary filmmakers working today, trying to wrestle it into something plausible and/or coherent would be an act of the upmost futility.

However, as he has demonstrated several times in the past, Chan-wook Park is no ordinary filmmaker and it is due almost entirely to his considerable efforts that he is able to actually make something of interest out of the material. Right from the opening credits, he creates a quietly unsettling mood and manages to maintain it throughout even when the story threatens to spiral completely out of control (which is quite often). Visually, the film is a knockout throughout--pretty much every scene contains at least one eye-catching flourish (although one towards the end may lose much of its impact because of the way it uncannily resembles a key shot from "Django Unchained") and there are a number of stunning set-pieces as well, including a flashback to a key moment from Charlie's past and the unexpected climax of India's encounter in the woods with the local bad boy (Alden Ehrenreich). Chan-wook also gets a stellar central performance from Mia Wasikowska, whose work here may be the most impressive turn in a career that has already seen more than its fair share of memorable moments.

In effect, what Chan-wook has done with "Stoker" is to transform a potentially silly potboiler into a heady cinematic tone poem--what Terence Malick might have come up with if he took a shot at making an exploitation movie. Does it work, as one might ask? Not completely, though I would submit that this says more about what it means for a movie to "work" these days than it does about the movie itself. On the one hand, it is strange, discursive and it doesn't so much end as it does peter out after 90-odd minutes. On the other hand, I was never bored while watching it and even its unevenness has a certain charm to it that I would take over the smoother and blander efforts of others. In all honesty, I can't say that I would offer a blanket recommendation for it because there is an excellent chance that it will profoundly alienate those who are simply looking for a movie to watch while unwinding on a Friday night. In a buffet of fast-food movies, "Stoker" is like a raw oyster--most people are likely to give it the widest possible berth imaginable but those hardy few with a taste for the unusual are likely to devour it with glee.

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