I loathed Django Unchained—Tarantino’s masturbatory exercise in self-aggrandizement. Yet even I can admire the beauty of one particular shot from the film, when a rich ruby blood spurt sprays across a field of snow-white cotton. Not only did this visual reinforce the horrific human toll of commodification—it also looked downright gorgeous.
The last shot of Stoker, directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), is very similar and equally sublime to the one described above. Even though the film has a fraction of the on-screen violence that Django vainly brandishes, Stoker is decidedly more engrossing, more tense, and more enjoyable. Tarantino should take a page from Park’s playbook. The aesthetics of morbidity come not from quantity, but quality.
A director renowned in Korea and among cinephiles, Park’s latest is his first English-language film. The story follows India (Mia Wasikowska) as she mourns the unexpected death of her father, while dealing with the equally sudden appearance of an estranged relative. Stoker’s script drapes itself in Hitchcockian pastiche, and runs the gauntlet of seemingly usual tropes: a creepy Gothic mansion (replete with blood red walls), the introverted daughter, the handsome yet eerie uncle (Matthew Goode), and the mother that’s oblivious to it all (Nicole Kidman).
The film’s most problematic aspects can be traced to this rather cookiecutter screenplay. Written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, a good three-fourths of the story is characterized by a sagging plotline and sonorous dialogue. The devilish ending, while exciting, doesn’t make up for the rather boring and bland material before it.
Consequently, the acting in Stoker is far from revelatory. Between Kidman’s stilted delivery, Goode’s uneven performance, and Jacki Weaver’s all-too-brief appearance as the saviour aunt, only Wasikowska manages to leave a positive impression. Playing a young girl in way over her head is nothing new for Wasikowska, who is best known for her roles in Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre. But India offers an opportunity to showcase a raw, unadulterated form of adolescence, and Wasikowska seizes these moments with dazzling efficacy.
That such moments arrive at all for Wasikowska is no doubt thanks to Park. In fact, what makes Stoker rise above its script is Park’s indelible style as auteur, an aromatic and hypnotizing mix of eroticism and violence. A shower scene that one expects to be an homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho instead takes a turn towards territory more reminiscent of Lynch, Cronenberg, or von Trier. This heady mixture of lust and bloodlust is Stoker’s greatest strength. Though the film never reaches the stomach-churning viscerality of Oldboy, the direction nevertheless belies an assured aesthetic sensibility of which lesser directors can only dream.
It’s always nice to see a film escape the event horizon of a mediocre script. That Stoker does so is due to clever sound mixing, adventurous cinematography, and most of all, to Park’s masterful artistry and guidance.
Stoker is playing at Cinema du Parc (3575 Avenue du Parc) and the Cineplex Forum (2313 Ste-Catherine Ouest).