Sunday, March 3, 2013

Inspired by classics, 'Stoker' becomes one itself

To say one watches “Stoker” is to use a far too passive verb. One doesn’t merely watch this masterful thriller, but instead is mesmerized by it and at times can even feel as if they’re being pulled toward the screen. The movie has been receiving comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock classics and while there are definitely strong similarities, director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”), writer Wentworth Miller and contributing writer Erin Cressida Wilson put enough of their own stamp on it to allow “Stoker” to stand alone. Mia Wasikowska has played several blonde and demure characters in movies like “Alice in Wonderland”, “The Kids are All Right” and “Lawless”, but here she reinvents herself as the dark (both in hair color and mood) India Stoker, a young woman whose father has just died. Her father was a mentor to her and she has a strained relationship with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), so when her long-absent uncle Charlie arrives, the two start to form a bond. Movie buffs might recognize this plot point as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”, the 1943 film with Joseph Cotten as a visiting uncle whose arrival marks the start of unpleasant events. While the two uncles are both named Charlie and “Stoker” clearly draws inspiration from “Shadow of a Doubt”, it embarks on its own strange and engrossing path. As Charlie acquaints himself with India and her Evelyn, a battle for affection takes place between the three. Evelyn tries to get closer to India, who was always more connected to her father, while Charlie begins to spend time with Evelyn before connecting with India. While this transpires, the true characters of Charlie and India are revealed with startling results. To reveal anything more would cheapen the experience for viewers and while the story is good, the technical aspects are where the movie really excels. “Stoker” is consistently ornamented with sharp uses of editing, sound and color. Transitions from one scene to the next are often so stylish the viewer might need a few seconds to appreciate the effect before fully turning their attention to the next scene. Robert Altman was credited with popularizing overlapping dialogue in which characters speak over each other and dialogue at times carries from one scene to the next. The scene transitions in “Stoker” occur in a similar way and in one of the best sequences the audience is taken from a school where a student walking from one side of the screen to the other serves as a wipe, bringing the audience onto a bus. The camera focuses on Wasikowska as the bus and everyone else on it dissolves, leaving Wasikowska walking on the same stretch of road the bus was just travelling on. As she walks, her surroundings disappear and are replaced with another road and new scenery as she makes her way toward her home, now at the top of the screen. In perhaps the most striking of these transitions, India brushes her mother’s hair and there’s a close-up image of the brush flowing downward through the red strands as they begin to change color, shape and coarseness, becoming tall blades of grass. Suddenly, the audience is looking at a field with a breeze travelling through it. Sometimes there is so much to appreciate simultaneously the eyes and ears are competing against each other. Near the end of the movie, the dialogue is revealing important details, but while the characters are speaking, the room they are in and the clothes they are wearing are so richly colored and the atmosphere so vivid that one has to focus with extra intent. Sound is practically its own character and the sounds of an eggshell cracking, a pencil being sharpened and the stretching of a leather belt are augmented the way one might gaze at a distant landscape through a telescope. Contrasting with these sounds, the quiet surrounding a desolate road in the daylight is unsettling and enhances the scene. None of these editing techniques, transitions, colors and sounds are simply for the sake of being strange or different. They all play an important role in creating the “Stoker” universe. It’s a universe in which these sights and sounds are not superfluous and are closely related to India. It’s a universe in which seemingly innocuous items pose a threat and the sight of a pair of high-heeled shoes increases the tension in an environment already saturated with anxiety. It would be easy to go on about how remarkable this movie is, how it’s refreshing to see there are still people working who love to further the possibilities of filmmaking and how this will invigorate the jaded filmgoer who’s tired of the endless stream of superheroes, vampires and teens with magical powers. As is always the case with great movies, no amount of writing can ever do the film justice. “Stoker” is a film which simply needs to be experienced.