Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content.
In the final chapter of “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” Mark Cousins’ epic documentary history of cinema (currently unspooling in segments each Saturday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art), Sweden’s Roy Andersson, director of “Songs from the Second Floor,” states: “I really don’t want a single frame in my movie that is indifferent — visually indifferent.”
“Stoker,” a study in psychological terror and the struggle for identity that can trace its bloody, muddy footprints to the spadework of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, demonstrates that South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook shares Andersson’s
philosophy. The movie doesn’t waste a frame. It insists that it be watched with eyes wide open, even if its occasionally gruesome action may cause some viewers to squeeze their lids tight.
Shot in Nashville but set in what might be described as a fantasy Southern Gothic parcel of Connecticut, “Stoker” is Park’s English-language film debut. The director was wooed to Hollywood on the strength of the violent and inventive so-called “Vengeance” trilogy that he created during the past decade; the most famous of these movies, “Oldboy,” is being remade by Spike Lee.
Park belongs to a trio himself: He’s one of three master South Korean genre filmmakers now working stateside. Kim Jee-woon (“I Saw the Devil”) delivered the disappointing Schwarzenegger vehicle “The Last Stand” earlier this year, while Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”) has “Snowpiercer” set for late 2013.
Scripted by actor-turned-writer Wentworth Miller (“Prison Break”), “Stoker” is the story of just-turned-18 India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a girl with a spider inside her. That’s a metaphor to suggest India is at once a victim and a predator within the sinister web of her dissolute family history, but Park literalizes the idea with shots of a spindly arachnid creeping up the girl’s sock, toward the sanctuary beneath her skirt.
When India’s beloved father is “burned to a crisp” in a car accident, the previously absent Uncle Charlie (handsome, reptilian Matthew Goode) cuts short his legendary globe-trotting to attend the funeral and move into the large isolated mansion shared by India and her rather spacey mother (Nicole Kidman). The colorful walls are shades of mauve and sea green; a winding staircase provides a symbol for the power struggles within, as characters ascend and descend. The grounds are lush, with soil that is soft and “good for digging.” We have no doubt digging soon will occur, to bury things much larger than a tulip bulb. In this diabolical household, as the cook informs us, even the eggs are deviled.
It’s no surprise a world traveler like Charlie would assume a girl named India is terra familiar and no challenge to his seductive powers of persuasion. Porcelain complexion aside, however, India is as opaque as her namesake ink. She’s so odd that it’s a shock when Park shows her in school, among peers; she seems like she would be more at home in a fairy tale or a Poe story than in a cafeteria or classroom.
The editing emphasizes the unreality; it creates mystical connections between shots, even where none exists in the narrative. When India brushes her mother’s red hair, the strands become blades of grass, waving in a field.
“Charlie, who in the world are you?” India’s mother asks her guest. She must not be a movie buff. The inspiration for this “Uncle Charlie” is not “My Three Sons” but Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), in which Joseph Cotton was an evil Uncle Charlie exposed by his adolescent niece. The Hitchcock allusions don’t stop here: India is a taxidermist, like Norman Bates in “Psycho,” and a strangulation that occurs is as ugly as the one in “Frenzy.”
But Park, like Brian De Palma before him — another stylist besotted by the visual storytelling tools that distinguish cinema from theater and literature — uses his references to the Master of Suspense as a starting point for a very different kind of story, a fable of a fractured adolescent identity that resolves itself into creative action. (The shower scene here is sexual, and its connection of violence to pleasure is much more disturbing for a 2013 audience than the familiar scene with Janet Leigh.)
Early in “Stoker,” India says her senses represent “the fruits of a lifetime of learning,” and Park is no less certain of his own powers of perception. He makes India, like himself, a sort of artist, manipulating the realities she inhabits, conjuring scenes that are marvelous, ghastly and mysterious. Is it style for style’s sake? Some might think so. But it’s certainly not indifferent.
“Stoker” is exclusively at Malco’s Ridgeway Four.