Sometimes I worry about myself. I was taking in the air after seeing the movie Stoker (2013) and thought to myself, “They’re making movies for me.” That’s a darkish confession because Stoker is really weird. But it looks and sounds excellent and provides a story that makes me pleasantly uncomfortable. It pushes the envelope and here’s the thing about pushing envelopes: it makes you feel something. But originality is a kind of inevitable journey to brutality. One cannot out-corn Disney, but we can eventually make a doll slaughter a family…oh wait, I mean have a cute little girl be a psychopath…oh wait, I mean…what can I mean? What fresh hell can be attributed to that which I find beautiful or safe? Because that’s where we’re going.
Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) has died, leaving his wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). India is very sensitive. At least to sounds and images. She hears and sees what other people do not. She also hates to be touched, doesn’t talk very much, and acts rather strangely. At the funeral, Richard’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears unexpectedly. It’s unexpected because not even Evelyn or India knew he had a brother. Then people start to disappear. But people disappear all the time, right?
This envelope pushing is not wholly for me. I present you with Q. Tarantino and Z. Snyder who I find a bit gross. Movies like Drive (2011) and Stoker show me that it isn’t the blood or the pitchblack humor that I dislike, but the expression of such things. Q & Z see blood in ribbons, but Nicolas Winding Refn and Chan-wook Park (the directors) see a spray. I’d rather not see it at all, but when called upon to make a judgment, I easily see the ribbons for what they are: a juvenile prankster’s choice. When is blood not blood? When it looks like red Nickelodeon slime. The humor is perhaps more palatable to me in Drive/Stoker because the characters are there for it and engage in it—they tell the joke and that’s why they’re evil. Tarantino and Snyder reserve their many otherwise-pointless victims for the butt of the joke which makes Tarantino and Snyder the cruel ones. Or is it the audience for laughing?
There’s also mood to be considered. Tense interactions and beautiful color with an eye for details describes the work of Refn and Park. A pupil slowly contracting, an amplified sound of something quietly creeping, a fake smile or a terribly earnest one. Mmm. You can live in that angst. You can feel that pressure as it tightens every muscle in your face and shoulders. This is like Hanna (2011) meets Drive. When you watch Tarantino, do you feel anything? There isn’t the same kind of investment in characters and mood that allows for any ending other than one of extreme bloody violence. Perhaps it’s that lack of choice that makes Tarantino so un-moody and the infinite choice that makes Drive and Stoker so deeply moody and surprising. Intensity may be a better word.
Stoker is a movie that you have to see alone. There are scenes that require you to watch without the pressure of being witnessed. One is of such shocking intimacy that would make even the most jaded of you blush. For that scene alone, I wouldn’t even let my murder-mystery-loving grandmother go see this movie. My mother, she doesn’t like Dexter, so there’s no way she’ll see Stoker. Only to my creepy friends who I know will enjoy this movie with the same deranged glee that I get in watching the intensely macabre.
Direction is exceptionally good. He and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung create a look that comes within a hair’s breadth of being over-stylized. It’s all Earth-tones and slightly drab, almost like a horror movie. The music, with score from Clint Mansell but the most pivotal music provided by Philip Glass , is terrific. This is a movie of great sights and sounds.
The performances are also exceptionally good. Goode and Wasikowska are on screen for all but five minutes and that five minutes is almost too long. Wasikowska’s character is so ambiguous and played so well that I know she can’t possibly be nominated for anything. It’s very early in the year, but this is by far the best to date. The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) comes out March 20th, so it’s up for an early challenge. The secret’s out on Goode—I take this moment to again recommend Burning Man (2012) to you—so expect him to continue to grace us with his talents.
The screenplay (Wentworth Miller with Erin Cressida Wilson contributing) is very good with the slight exception of the dialogue, which tends towards formality and occasionally over-expresses a moment—that’s not to say ‘cheats’—but the amount of tone and silence given makes the writer a gold star winner in my book.
If you’re a serious film-goer, you will see and love this movie. You know and I know that it’s been a long time since we saw a movie that was a front-to-back great movie. I think Stoker will satisfy.