Movie Review: Stoker- An Overtly Suggestive Thriller that Thrives On Intense Visuals, Menacing Tones, and Morally Ambiguous Themes

Matthew-Goode-and-Mia-Wasikowska-in-Stoker-2013-Movie-Image-2All of the films by South Korean director Chan-Wook Park are far more than just intriguing thrillers because through his enhancing and poetic cinematic style coupled with deep contemplative themes he constructs morality plays that are modern, disturbing, and incredibly thought provoking. Chan-Wook Park thrives in the figurative and literal grey areas of life whether it’s the conscience challenged vampire priest in Thirst or the geographical neutral area between North and South Korea in Joint Security Area. In his latest thriller, and American cinematic debut, there exists a reflective moral theme but due to its simplistic script not penned by the auteur himself there seems to be something lost in translation. All the appropriate pieces are placed in sequence, from his usual incestuous ponderings and heightened showcasing of mankind’s dark nature, but ultimately the script’s constant foreboding ruins any thrilling twists that could have otherwise been preserved had Chan-Wook Park been able to write the film himself. However, as American thrillers are concerned Stoker does somehow rise above their usual mediocrity due to Park’s awe-inspiring visual display and his surprising ability to uproot uncomfortably creepy performances out of his eclectic cast. Critiquing this brooding cinematic movement from the South Korean auteur is a difficult challenge because while this might be his worst film to date it still contains an understanding of unnerving tone and complimentary visual genius that most American thrillers should try and replicate as often as possible. Despite the weak script that amplifies its twists through excessive suggestion Chan-Wook Park handles the process with elegance and patience that any other filmmaker would have ruined. While Stoker might be an overly done and simplistic human nature study it serves as an appropriate introduction to his previous works to an American audience that might have been unaware of his genius and also sets a promising foundation for future works to come.

Before this American debut Chan-Wook Park was referred to as the Alfred Hitchcock of South Korean cinema so it seems appropriate that Stoker more than inspirationally borrowed a plot from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Screenwriter Wentworth Miller takes the leading “MacGuffin” of the relatively overlooked Hitchcock classic and inserts a great deal of torturous violence, overly menacing dialogue, and triangle love affairs in order to distract from the fact that this is arguably a blatant rip-off of the Hitchcock film. The film follows the young and misunderstood India who gets acquainted with her mysterious Uncle Charlie who appears suddenly after her father was just killed in a car accident. All of the subtlety that a thriller is supposed to possess is eliminated in the loudness of the scripts suggestive nature that something is amiss and reveals twist worthy discoveries in a confusingly flat fashion. It’s almost as if Miller knew that the story’s obviousness was already apparent so he didn’t bother trying to hide any plot intentions in an attempt to at least heighten the mysterious elements of the script. For a script so blatantly inspired by Hitchcock Stoker actually becomes the antithesis of the master of suspense’s work by being excessively menacing in tone, dialogue, and action when an adoption of subtlety could have heightened the mystery experience. What can be complimented is the script’s contemplative idea on the darkness of human nature, either its suggestibility or perhaps genetic connection, contributing to the moral ponderings of Chan-Wook Park’s previous works. It isn’t at all as thought provoking as anything Park himself has written but it’s a positive feature for him to continue in his American works where his control behind the camera is a powerful presence indeed.

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Arguably the technical strengths of Stoker are immensely overdone for such a simplistic and predictable script but the entire film is absent of wasted shots and unnerves you with its careful precision. Chan-Wook Park brought along cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung to visually capture the brooding angst and foreboding creepiness as he has done in many of Park’s previous films, including the vengeance classic Oldboy. Their visual collaboration is truly a marvel of cinematic acrobatics as the camera jumps from elegant movements to uncomfortable close-ups to threatening moodiness. The entire visual experience will introduce Americans and remind dedicated Chan-Wook Park fans that his understanding of cinema as an artistic and all-encompassing medium is comparable to very few modern auteurs. The intense visuals do have the same overt suggestiveness that the script possesses sacrificing a sense of plot and twist subtlety for a more ambient and unnerving experience. That incessantly moody ambiance is exceptionally complimented by Clint Mansell’s score that foregoes the Bernard Hermann intensity for a score far more unnerving in tension. The coldness of the world created in Stoker, perhaps a criticism of the coldness of our society, is definitely reflected in the overly technical style delivered by Chan-Wook Park where the disconnected feeling with the characters is intentional. There is a lot to admire in the tonal and technical delivery of Chan-Wook Park’s work, especially here in his American debut, but because the simplistic script didn’t allow a fully intriguing experience he had to rely on the power of visuals to immerse you into the menacing world of Stoker. Luckily Park had no speed bumps in the process of working with his American cast that equally deliver on that ominous feeling throughout the film.

There is always a fear that a foreign director might not be able to get the performances needed that are essential in relating the intended themes and ideas of a film because of a gap in communication. This isn’t always a language gap but also a cultural gap where understanding of certain issues and character motivations might be entirely different in one culture over the other. However, it appears Chan-Wook Park knows that his themes are universal and that his biggest strength is conveying mood over dialogue so in Stoker he successfully gets his cast to embody the tone through their characters. The young and always impressive Mia Wasikowska has the proper coldness and disconnected persona to appropriately heighten her characters mysterious thoughts and even more mysterious actions. She showcases a range of teenage angst with adult sociopathic tendencies proving that her growth as an expressive actress can only grow stronger and stronger. Her sociopathic counterpart is Matthew Goode who has this elusive charm to his disturbing presence making you truly understand India’s curiosity towards him in a more than familial way. Surprisingly Nicole Kidman delivers a notable performance here as the longing to be wanted mother who desires to be sexually recognized but also to be accepted by her cold daughter. This isn’t to say that Kidman is a bad actress because she clearly is not but as of late the memorable qualities of her films have been dissipating. All the supporting roles from Alden Ehrenreich to Jackie Weaver all contribute to a menacing character tapestry of fear, lust, and death that gives the absolute cold world of Stoker a bit of relatable human emotion. Chan-Wook Park understands the tones of his films and that ability to get his actors to fully embody that tone definitely wasn’t lost in translation here.

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Director Chan-Wook Park has impacted the world of cinema in an important way through his intensely violent and remarkably contemplative cinematic moral plays in South Korea so it seemed only natural for him to bring that memorable style to American film. What’s unfortunate about his American debut in Stoker is that while the script does have a superficial reflection on moral ambiguity there is still an uncomfortably simplistic approach to the plot construction and the overly suggestive dialogue. Park’s ingenious cinematic strengths try to erode that predictable nature by immersing you into a moodily menacing experience but that can only do so much to counteract the weakness of the script. At times the awe-inspiring visuals become just exercises in self-indulgence instead of directly contemplating the actions on the screen but those moments aren’t the majority in the technical choices. Compared to his South Korean masterpieces it’s only expected that this Hitchcockian homage to Shadow of a Doubt wouldn’t live up to the Chan-Wook Park standard of excellence but it is still a promising American debut for intriguing thrillers. Because Stoker possesses minor moral contemplation, an intensely engaging tone throughout the film, and complimentary performances from a credible cast it’s definitely a thriller worth experiencing. For dedicated Chan-Wook Park fans Stoker might be a mild disappointment but for Americans unfamiliar with his previous cinematic movements it very well serve as an introductory catalyst to eventually experience them all.

Grade: B-

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