Saturday, March 23, 2013

Stoker (mild spoilers)

I have an idea for a website where I would post high-gloss fashion shots, the kind that make up much of every issue of Vogue and W. You know the kind I mean; they are ridiculously high-concept and far removed from any standard of beauty or reality that most of us would recognize. I’d write a literal one-sentence caption for each shot (“Mia Wasikowska sitting fully dressed in a bathtub.”) and call the site something like “Inexplicable Gorgeous Product.” Mia Wasikowska’s new movie Stoker, directed by Park Chan-Wook, is a feature-length piece of Inexplicable Gorgeous Product. Stylized to the point of asphyxiation, it purports to be a psychosexual thriller but fails on all counts. Stoker wants to be shocking and if it had been made 25 years ago it might have been, but writer Wentworth Miller’s presentation of aberrant behavior in placid surroundings feels like something we’ve already grown accustomed to. What we have here is third-rate David Lynch with two important differences. Lynch has a sense of humor, and he likes women.

The worldview of Stoker is spelled out in an opening bit of voice-over: We are entirely shaped by external forces and there is no such thing as personal responsibility. The short piece of narration reveals far too much about where things are headed. India Stoker (Wasikowska) is celebrating her eighteenth birthday at her family’s spacious Connecticut home. It’s the sort of place that even a modernist architect might reject as “too cold.” The house is austere except when Chan-Wook needs it not to be. The bedroom of India’s mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) would work for a Tennessee Williams play; it’s painted bright red and serves as an outlet for other things she can’t express. India makes an important discovery in the dank cellar, and her habit of swinging the lone light source around for no reason is just another of the movie’s visual tics. There is also an unusually high number of bugs and spiders in the house, and they end up in the most symbolic of places. India’s birthday coincides with the accidental death of her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) and the arrival of her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a traveler with no discernible income or career. Stoker reveals itself as the story of India discovering her true nature, and it’s at this point that things begin to go badly wrong. We’re meant to understand that Charlie was the one missing piece needed for India to come into herself as a sociopath. Is this movie really a story of self-acceptance?

Mia Wasikowska has been excellent and brilliantly sensitive in other roles (In Treatment, The Kids Are All Right), but in Stoker  her character must serve as the movie’s expression of how the world works. Wasikowska has no room to breathe and she has never has a chance. What might have been accomplished if the character had been grounded in something human and recognizable? There are moments: a piano duet between India and Charlie is a small triumph of eroticism. India stands on a spinning piece of playground equipment while talking to a high-school boy (Alden Ehrenreich); as she advances towards and retreats from the camera we seem to see her at a tipping point. A scene involving India’s burgeoning sexuality is unfortunate; I wish Stoker didn’t make the line between unfulfilled sexual desire and psychosis so thin. Nicole Kidman plays Evelyn as a bundle of unmet needs and gives the movie’s best performance; she’s the most relatable character onscreen but still seems to be one wine-free night away from a psychotic break. There’s a strange fear of what women are capable of that runs through Stoker; that and the obsessive production design make it an early candidate for the silliest movie of 2013.

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