Old Boy quickly became one of my favorite films after just the first viewing, accidentally caught on a movie channel a few years ago. I then, as I often do, began research on the filmmaker, thinking I needed to see and would like all of his work. Next was Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, then I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok, and Thirst; each one uniquely strange and beautiful, clever and fascinating.
My interest and excitement when news that Park Chan-wook’s first English speaking film was in production was high. But I’ve run into this issue before. Not everything a filmmaker makes is gold or should I say, just because you liked one or even ten films by someone, doesn’t mean you’ll like them all. There are so many variables to consider. Hitchcock had Family Plot and Topaz, Tim Burton has everything after Ed Wood, the Coen’s made Intolerable Cruelty and Lady Killers. And now Park Chan-wook has Stoker.
It’s not that the film is all bad, I think. It’s just by putting it next to the others, comparing it with them, reveals inferior work.
Bad scripts can make good actors look bad. Good scripts can make bad actors look good. Sometimes bad actors bring down good scripts and sometimes good actors save bad scripts from being bad. Got it?
What we have here is a combination of some of these. A weak script, yet an interesting story. Predictable dialogue mixed with beautiful poetic prose. Some very good actors and some not so good ones. Stoker is full of cliché after cliché. Which begs the question: is this what Park thinks American film is? How Americans act? Where‘s the awkwardness, the quirkiness of the characters? Even Dae-su Oh (Old Boy) had some of this in him, admittedly brought on by years of isolation and sleep deprivation, but it’s still part of what makes the character interesting and sympathetic. Sympathy for Mr. Old Boy! The characters in Stoker are different, but it seems forced, caricatures of offbeat characters working too hard to be different.
I know, Dermot Mulroney had very few speaking scenes and that’s usually a good thing. Full disclosure: Dirty Steve Stephens was my favorite character in Young Guns and I was sad to see him die, however heroically, at the final shootout. The sequel could of used some of his witty banter and grit; the perfect foil to Lou Diamond Phillips’ Chavez y Chavez.
This film is a no doubt borrowing from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
In Shadow, Joseph Cotton plays the charming old lady killer with subtlety. His ability to go from zero to violent, even towards his beloved niece, is unsettling.
Matthew Goode’s Uncle Charlie in Stoker on the other hand looks punch drunk and lost. The difference, I suppose, is that Cotton’s Charlie was a sociopath with an agenda (see his dinner table rant about how little old ladies are actually like fat pigs that need to be slaughtered.) He knows he’s doing it, hence the wink right to the camera. Goode’s Charlie is meant to be sick, a psychopath with one goal – be with India. He has no self-control. Admittedly, it may be as hard to play a psychopath, someone who is truly sick, without becoming pastiche, as it is to play someone with special needs or to try to explain to someone a dream you had. So there’s that. But many actors have done this successfully: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, and Tom Hardy as the title character in Bronson. Just to name three.
In Shadow, Theresa Wright plays niece Charlie as innocent and naïve, but also with a strong will and sense of right and wrong. She’s a free thinker, not an outcast.
Mia Wasikowska plays niece Charlie, er, I mean, India, as an Emo high schooler. Different than the other kids at school, and oh yeah, she’s got super human senses. She can hear and feel and sense things in a magnified way, a spidey-sense if you will. Maybe the daddy longlegs that crawls up her leg and into her crotch is radioactive! Clearly the spider is Charlie: the mysterious visitor who also tries to crawl up India’s figurative leg and into her actual crotch.
Wentworth Miller (screenplay) admits that Shadow of a Doubt influenced the script, as a “jumping off point...and then we take it in a very, very different direction." It is also apparently influenced by Bram Stoker's Dracula. And although Stoker is not about vampires, there is something very vampire-y about Charlie. Why won’t you eat, man!?
Of course much of the film is very Hitchcockian, using themes, plot devices and motifs in similar ways, but the same can be said for many other filmmaker’s work. Spielberg’s early stuff, M. Night Shyamalan’s plot twisting, and David Fincher’s work are all heavily influenced by the Man.
The staircase shots and the use of trains as a sexual euphemism are homage to Hitch. So too is the use of shadow, in particular when Charlie is cooking dinner and part of his conversation with India is in full shadow. And the swinging light fixture, working as both illumination and creepification (to coin a term), is right from Psycho.
It’s known that after seeing Hitchcock’s Vertigo for the first time, Park decided to try filmmaking, and his first films are beautifully shot and composed dark narratives with a sense of humor and high level of violence. His newest film has all of this. Much of the framing in Stoker is thoughtful and well crafted. His DP moves his camera gracefully at times willfully taking the place of dialogue to give us story information. The story is dark and at times laced with humor. Though there are times when that humor comes seemingly from an unintentional place. For instance, near the end of the film we see Evelyn (Kidman) confront Uncle Charlie and India. She tells Charlie to meet her in her room. The following profile shot has Charlie manically looking after Evelyn with eyes bugged – looking more like Marty Feldman than the Norman Bates/Uncle Charlie Oakley combo he was probably going for.
Finally, high school sequences can work if they are well placed in a narrative that depends on it – see Rian Johnson’s Brick. In Stoker, however, the sequences are unnecessary and unrealistic; as if this is some version of American high school that Park has heard about, not one based in reality. It’s more Ten Things I Hate About You than Heathers. Why are they there? To get us to meet Whip, the bad boy, motorcycle riding outcast who sticks up for then tries to rape India. There are other ways to do this. Also, we don’t need to see her being bullied by jocks to know she is different. The solitary moments in the beginning, her shoes, voice over, and overall demeanor cue us to this well enough. Whip doesn’t have to gain her trust in order for the scene to work. That’s not why she’s there and in fact, a stranger would have worked just as well. Say, dirt bike riding Johnny Lawrence, or sensitive, brooding Harley owner James Hurley, or even Butch “it’s a Chopper, baby” Coolidge could have fit the bill if all you needed was a two-wheeling bad boy.
Overall, I am about as much disappointed in Stoker as I am in most films I see. I am an esoteric, elitist snob after all. And my hypocrisy truly knows no bounds, as I will watch it again.