Thursday 28 February 2013

Stoker (2013) - Park Chan-wook

With a  name like Stoker you may be expecting a vampire horror flick.  Instead, Park presents us with a film that’s part murder mystery, part gothic fairytale and part erotic thriller.  At its core, this is a deeply perverse film.

The essence of Stoker is the loss of innocence – specifically, that of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska).  When her father dies, her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) unexpectedly arrives on the scene and moves in with India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  What results is a twisted love triangle that pushes the boundaries of acceptable family relationships: mother and daughter forced to breaking point as the empty hole left behind in both of their lives morphs into incestuous desire for Charlie.  “We don’t need to be friends, we’re family”, India tellingly says to her uncle.  Underlying secrets of the family’s past are slowly uncovered, though its final twist is an obvious one.

Staying true to the Stoker name, the gothic cinematography is stunningly monochromatic.  Paralleling the narrative, the construction of the film is purposefully unsettling.  The events take place in a creepy mansion that’s crumbling and decaying, the lighting elongating every shadow.  The costumes, too, create a distorted sense of time, mixing India’s old-fashioned smocks with her mother’s colourful sensuality.  Most of all, the stark colour scheme reflects the loss of innocence: flowers stained with bright blood; virginity corrupted by sexual fantasy; white tainted by black.  Stoker may not be a true horror film, but its mise en scene ensures a Hitchcockian tension.

The performers are also well cast.  Like Wednesday Addams, Waskowska is all porcelain skin and lank dark hair, her blank expressions (typical of all her performances) ensuring she almost fades into the black and white background.  In any other performance this would be a criticism, but for such an introverted character (like Twilight’s Bella Swan, but with more incest) it works.  Kidman is well suited to her role, balancing sexuality and fragility like a pristine doll – her flame hair utilised in an extraordinary morphing shot.  Goode’s turn as Charlie is suitably disturbing, his eyes displaying both menacing danger and irresistible charm.

It’s the hyperbolic sound design that most stands out however, even above the sparse score from Clint Mansell (that additionally includes pieces by Philip Glass).  In a stroke of the supernatural, India has slightly exaggerated hearing, resulting in a hugely dynamic aural soundscape – the cracking of egg shells, the ticking of a metronome, the crescendo of piano playing, the sound of a belt being slowly removed through trouser loops.  It’s equally unsettling yet weirdly sexual.  The use of sound – more than anything else – conducts our emotions through an intriguing, if ultimately disappointing, narrative.