Review: Chan-wook Park makes a perverse American debut with 'Stoker'
PARK CITY - Chan-wook Park has built a reputation for himself as a very smart and very perverse filmmaker, and it is safe to say his reputation will be intact once audiences get a look at "Stoker," a character-driven thriller that made its world premiere tonight at the Sundance Film Festival.
Written by Wentworth Miller, "Stoker" tells the story of India (Mia Waskikowska), an unusual young woman who has a very close relationship to her father (Dermot Mulroney) until the day he dies, which also happens to be her 18th birthday. Shattered, she goes numb, especially since this means she's going to have to deal now with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who she seems to despise. India is a withdrawn, sullen girl, and she feels alone in the world, which is one of the reasons she is so confused when her Uncle Charlie shows up to pay his respects. Played by Matthew Goode, Uncle Charlie has a surface-level charm that's hard to deny, but it's obvious from the moment he arrives that something is wrong with Uncle Charlie and his story.
The last thing India expects, though, is that there is also something wrong with her.
While the trailer for this one made it seem like they were playing a riff on Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow Of A Doubt," it's actually far more unpleasant. What's interesting about Chan-wook Park's visual approach (he brought his long-time collaborator Chung-hon Chung with him as cinematographer) is how he works overtime to imply rather than be explicit, and it's not because he had to do it that way. I'm sure he could have made a far more brutal version of this film, but it seems like he approached this as an exercise in just how far he can push the audience without actually showing them something. It's a very Hitchcock way of doing things, but when he does transgress, it counts because everything's been so restrained until that point.
I first noticed Mia Wasikowska's work when she appeared on "In Treatment," and the performance she gave on that show convinced me that she is a powerhouse, someone of uncommon natural talent. Like any actor, she's only as good as the roles she's given, and since "In Treatment," she hasn't had the best run of material. "Stoker" is thin in some ways, but taken almost as an expression of her character's inner life, it is often very compelling. She is very good playing off of Matthew Goode, who is well-cast as Uncle Charlie. There is something corrupt about Goode's good looks, something crazy just under the surface. It worked for him when he played Ozymandias in "Watchmen," and he rips into his character here with a dedication that is impressive.
Kidman is less well-treated by the material and she seems somewhat stranded in the role. There's a little bit of time spent suggesting that she and Uncle Charlie might have something going, but there's so little made of it, and it's so ultimately pointless, that it seems like they either should have pushed that further or taken it out completely. Right now, it feels like one complication too many to the script.
Once the film starts to reveal its secrets, it moves quickly, and my biggest issue with the film is that I think they got really close to the great version of this movie. There is a scene where Wasikowska takes a shower that is disturbing and personal and bold, and I wanted more of that. I wanted the craziest stuff in the film to matter more. I wanted to be as rattled by this as I was by "Old Boy" or "Sympathy For Lady Vengeance." The film flirts with that degree of transgression, but pulls back and plays conventional in the end. It reminds me in that way of "Fatal Attraction," a film that changed its ending after test screenings, taking a thematically resonant downer and turning it into a stupid slasher cheap scare. This film moves all the pieces into place to do something truly outrageous in act three, and instead, it feels like that's when the steam goes out of it.
Even so, "Stoker" is a stylish and often stunning exercise for Chan-wook Park, and it's worth seeing to check in on Wasikowska as she continues to prove herself one of the most significant talents of her age group. "Stoker" may not delve much deeper than its admittedly sinister surface, but the dark kicks it offers are quite effective.
"Stoker" opens in limited release on March 1st.