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Review: ‘Stoker’

Park Chan-Wook’s American Debut

Director Park Chan Wook wows with unconventional style in his first American film, "Stoker" (opens March 15). It is not to be missed!

Watch the trailer here.

With "Stoker," I experience Director Park Chan Wook's work with fresh eyes. I haven't seen any of his previous films. Obviously, I read Beth Accomando's rave reviews of the professed movie master. Her stories got me stoked for "Stoker," Park's first U.S. film. With an unencumbered perspective I dive into the film that leans more towards style than substance.

To my delight, the film opens with a low, wide establishing shot (pictured below). Low perspective shots are my thing -- I'm not sure why. Our lead, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), leads with narration as we are treated to the first series of cuts. The different shots correspond with her explanation of her clothes, self, and musings about life and personal flourishing.

The film's plot is not terribly original or exciting, but the artistry with which it all unfolds is marvelous; few films sport such style.

India is grieving her father's recent death, with only her absent minded, "Stepford wife"-like mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and housemaids for support. At her father's wake she meets his brother, her uncle, for the first time, Charles (Matthew Goode). It is very evident that his presence is uncomfortable to all, except Evelyn, an overall terrible woman with a constant wine glass in hand and eye on Charles.

A "Stoker" scene featuring rich, dark colors.

Brother Charles is smooth as a snake. He's calm and controlled, with a glaring eeriness that suits the film's pace and unsettling undertones.

To little surprise, the unsettling essence that surrounds Charles is merited by his violence. I don't want to spoil what little there is to spoil, as Park tells the simple tale beautifully, but essentially, India and her mother grow close to Charles in disturbing fashion. The truth of his shady past is revealed, and his violent and calculating nature is demonstrated in India, who struggles with sorting this out herself, in addition to the normal adjustments that come with becoming an "adult," having just turned 18 the day of her father's death.

With the story so simple, what keeps us locked in? First, the spectacular score. It keeps you strung along for the entire film. It's all very controlled and subtle, varying as needed by the scene. This build up of contained emotion is best appreciated at the last song, which breaks from the slow themes used throughout, and allows for full, deep breaths with its hard, wild sounds. This lets the viewer release tension built up throughout the film -- a good way to let it all sink in.

In addition to the well suited score, there is an eyeful of detail in each shot assembly. The boil popping, blood squishing, lip licking detail is effectively entrancing and refined. These small highlighted sensations keep the film gripping during times that might be too slow for some. Some of my favorite nuanced features are in the use of sound. Park is effective in making the noises affect the viewer. When India drinks her uncle's wine, we hear every sound of her breath fill the glass as she takes her sips. It feels and sounds like we are taking the drink with her.

"Stoker" is full of these unique attention grabbing moments. And there are enough of them, with variation, to make the simple story dynamic and captivating.

Another impacting element of "Stoker" is the demonstration of very humanizing themes. With focus on a grieving and estranged family, there are many to pick from. The most memorable of these demonstrations occurs in a shower scene. Thanks to a series of extreme close ups, rather than a wide shot that might allow the viewer to pick what to focus on (which I do enjoy), we see what we're meant to, and we feel what we're meant to. With attention on India's face and to her noises, we experience her in an emotional crying state -- uncharacteristic of her. We empathize with her pain, having just experienced a murder, and feel of general sadness. Then a slow lingering shot travels down to her hand between her legs. She is masterbating. Those sounds of sadness and dismay are now sounds of raw, sexual pleasure. Each viewer reacts as they might, but inner dialogue and mild confusion abounds as we quickly switch emotional gears.

This sequence, while sharing the story, presents an opportunity for the audience to ponder the links between sexuality, violence and sadness. Few filmmakers so aptly tell a story while providing such questions and sensations to the audience.

Qualities like these are why "Stoker" is so unique and thrilling. It's an unconventional breath of fresh air. And as I said, it's not to be missed.

"Stoker" is rated R for disturbing violence and sexual content.

A brightly colored scene from "Stoker," with an insanely cool reading spot that hangs from a tree.

Companion Viewing:

"Killer Joe" (2011)

Similar to Uncle Charlie, Joe is a controlling and poised lead creeper. This film evokes similar emotions and sensations as "Stoker."

See Park Chan Wook's other works here.

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