SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Friday, 1 March 2013

Stoked to Death! Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode star in Park Chan-wook's 'Stoker' - "earthily inventive, studiously erotic, cruel-spirited cinema".


*Some spoilers lurk in the woods below - but as this film exists to be full of surprises, there will be warnings for all the major ones*

'STOKER' is an astoundingly good movie, beautifully directed (full of Roeg-like, Wicker Man-ish visuals and lovingly-realised craftmanship) by director Park Chan-wook ('Old Boy', 'Thirst', 'Lady Vengeance'). It's a film that focuses on dark nature (of people and places) below the surface - in very loud close-up.
Cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung makes sure nature is never less than popping with life, in still or slow motion -threatening as well as enticing. The sound of the movie veers from classical interludes to sharpened, graphic walls of bruising sound - flourishes, of aching density, but drowned more often by sudden pockets of complete deafening silence alongside still life visual framing when all the action stops and everyone (audience included) takes a breather (and where the auditorium is so silent you can hear light breathing from the seat beside you). Like growing up, everything appears either too fast here, or slow and boring.
This is auteur film-making stripped to the bone - dark shadows in lonely enchanted, violent woodland is as at ease with the bright, preppy, sun-drenched school bully playground haunts. The cast appear almost as sketches in a teenage girl's scrapbook - not always as clear as you'd like, vague wonderings or sometimes too perfectly real to actually be real.
Reality isn't ever clear here, when a murder takes place under cover of night, we are never absolutely sure that this is what has actually happened - a few different shots of the same moment are shown. This imaginary friend of a reality, is linked to coming of age furtive wild imagination, and - in an especially uncensoring moment of plot exposition; first orgasm. Wishful-thinking and alternative realities collide under the spray of a hot shower; Hitchcock would have approved.  

*Spoiler Paragraph*
This is buzzing film-making where every second of screen time seems to count. Magnificent flourishes of inventiveness abound in setpieces that sear to the skull: the sand pit (making sure the phrase 'bury your head in the sand' may never be used again); the telephone box murder (recalling a similar scene in the Anthony Perkins-directed 'Psycho III'); the dark deeds in the woodland (making out means losing your mind - literally); the tender hunting scenes in the wood between father and daughter ensuring a unique bond that's entirely practical - and the wonderful final moments of the film where India Stoker stands on the side of the road, shotgun in hand, that reminds of the cult classic revenge-flick ''They Call Her One Eye' (aka: 'Thriller: A Cruel Picture') that saw Christina Lindberg also rock 'n' roll with sight-posturing precision.

That soundtrack, full of Lynch-like carnivorous surges of static or serene, piano-led twirlings of grace (calms before storms) and sudden surges of enthusiastic electronic rush come courtesy of 'Pop Will Eat Itself' frontman Clint Mansell who also provided original scores for 'The Wrestler' and 'Black Swan' (a film that also had a similar sensory scrapbook of sex, sound and murderous grace alongside the uncertainty of mind and murderous intent). 'Stoker' may well be the rural, brooding, badder sister from Tennessee of the smart, sassy New Yorker, 'Black Swan'.

*Spoiler Paragraph*
The film opens with young India Stoker (Maria Wasikowska) mourning her deceased father, standing alongside mother Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman) at the burial service. The mysterious Uncle Charles Stoker (Matthew Goode) is there too, seen from a distance, and later turns up at the Stoker house to visit (and stay, for much longer than expected). Although India has never met her uncle before, she thinks about him a lot. Charlie has been thinking about India a lot too (though she could never have suspected). As other family members try to stop the sinister hold Uncle Charles has over the untouched innocence of India, Evelyn starts getting close to her dead husband's more mysterious long-lost brother herself.

Clearly, though, it's only young India that Charles has plans for as, slowly, his influence on the girl takes hold. Perhaps he achieves this through the power of suggestion; insisting they are both 'different' to everyone else - and can see and hear things no other person can. Or could it be India pulling all the right strings in this puppet show dance around the dead? Uncle Charles doesn't like India's boyfriends; so they are first on his 'to do' list. He's a caring Uncle you see. Who will end up on that piano stool forever playing a melancholy duet with Uncle Charlie before the bloody finale hits the target - mother or daughter? As India discovers a pile of hidden letters (and calligraphically complex words sprawl magnificently across the screen in a visual flourish seperating the uncertain link here between reality and teenage diary-like imagination still further) there's a sudden glimpse into a tragic few home truths from the past - very 'home' truths; the blood, regardless of whether thicker than water, is beginning to boil and bubble.

*Spoiler Paragraph*
There's a wonderful stand-out scene near the end of the movie between India and Uncle Charles on a piano stool, where he suddenly reaches across, puts his arm around her, as they keep playing the notes together. India's face starts reddening, her breathing quickening - clearly on the point of orgasm up to the point where he stops playing with a sudden, silence-shocking halt. Kept on this peak until a desperate, feverish release later in the shower after an especially shocking moment in the woods full of sex, blood, lots of mud and then (back home) - a bathroom full of steam; as steamy as the school shower room that Sissy Spacek waded into at the start of Stephen King's 'Carrie' (1976).

The shower scene in 'Stoker' also recalls the blood-rinsing bathing of the teenage girl at the end of 'Carrie'. Carrie White, in fact, isn't a character all that far removed from India Stoker. Remember the rush of spinning knives from Carrie's mind and the one that strikes her mother in the heart? Here, the stabbing of a schoolboy bully in the hand with a pencil and the resultant blood, is a similar act of violence, on a much smaller scale - but one that lays the groundlines as to who is in charge.

These girls - both Carrie and India - may look frail, withdrawn, weaker than you. But don't make the mistake of believing that for too long. By the time the end credits roll down the screen in 'Stoker' (rather than the expected other way up) just after a single dripped drop of real blood in bright sunshine falls into a sudden black pre-credits backdrop; becoming a painted red cartoon-like thing the further it keeps falling to the bottom of the screen, chased by falling film credits (the drop now looking like a schoolgirl doodle in a notebook), we will never take India Stoker for a fool, even if we ever had - ever again. There has to be - should be - a sequel to all this. The next step. A new kind of anti-heroine to applaud. The ending of 'Stoker' perfectly sets one up.
There's a strong feel throughout Stoker's runtime that it's a supernatural take on Hitchcock's Psycho (Uncle Charles isn't that far removed from Norman Bates in look, charisma and controlled temper), but there's also a real sense of uncertainty as to what is reality here; and the nature of true evil.

Mia Wasikowska is absolutely stunning and striking here as India Stoker (following a starring role in Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' in 2010 she's become one of the most dynamic and intriguing young stars in cinema right now - a whole army of movies being made in 2013 look set to boost her appeal still further, including the Jim Jarmusch 'bad little sister vampire tease'; 'Only Lovers Left Alive' ).

It's India's maybe maliciously beating heart that gives 'Stoker' such a killer edge all the way through. Malicious or touched with gentle kindness; innocence or desire - or both? We just don't know. Kidman oozes weird calm as mum Stoker and Matthew Goode as Uncle Charles prickles the senses perfectly - oozes smooth, killer cool. But the movie tagline is correct - innocence really does end here. The final reel is kickass fantastic - life-changing. Great, powerful, earthily inventive, studiously erotic, cruel-spirited cinema. This film is fully stoked with everything you need to have some deliciously devilish fun time with.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

All 'Stoker' images © 2013 FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES 

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