Stoker | Director Chan-wook Park | Score: 4.4
It’s not often that a team of sound designers is asked to carry the majority of the story in a feature film, but Chan-Wook Park’s peculiar gothic thriller relies so heavily on Chuck Michael and John Morris and their skilled team of sound technicians, it’s almost as though they should be getting top billing in the credits.
Sound is integral to the film, both because the main protagonist, 18-year-old introvert India (Mia Wasikowska), has nearly super-human hearing, but also because left on its own merits, the film’s story hangs together about as well as a bowl of cream left out in the sun all day.
India, normally recalcitrant, is especially down because her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) has just been found dead in his car, after what appears to be an accident. Left in their mansion-like property with her bizarrely impassive mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), India is also surprised to find, at her father’s funeral, that she has an uncle she never knew about. Charlie (Matthew Goode) suddenly appears at their house, and immediately begins to creep India out.
He’s slick and well-mannered, but he seems totally unaffected by his brother’s sudden death, and wastes no time making inroads with Evelyn, whom, to India’s horror, shows immediate interest. Before too long, of course, Charlie begins to turn his attentions over to his niece, who is also not entirely repulsed, even as scads of her acquaintances suddenly go missing.
Things sort of escalate from there, with plenty of curious psycho-sexual nuances and blatant visual metaphors permeating the proceedings. Indeed, Chan-Wook and his longtime DP Chung-Hoon Chung, can’t resist cramming nearly every frame of the film with oddities — smoking birthday cakes, spiders crawling up legs, shimmering figures, mysterious keys — there’s a sense that the filmmaker and his team want to throw as much as they can at the audience in the hopes that something will resonate. Some of the imagery is creepily effective, some of it is so on the nose (a fly trapped in the back of a car taking a young boy to an insane asylum, for example) that you find your teeth involuntarily grinding.
And then there’s the sound surrounding India at all times. Whispering voices, crickets, the whirring of a fan, the subtle crackling of an egg shell being rolled on a table, the ticking of a metronome, everything gets noted and highlighted, which has the opposite effect it desires: By making the sound so blatant, so obvious, it draws attention to itself as a thing separate entirely from its environment. Instead of sinking us further down into the narrative (a la Barton Fink), it pushes us away and makes us all to aware of what desired effect the production team is hoping for.
This is more or less in keeping with the rest of the film’s many faults. The script, hacked together by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson, feels as if it’s been run through Google translator before being shot. Almost nothing makes much sense or hangs together particularly well. We’re never asked to question why Eveyln takes all of half-an-hour before wanting to jump her brother-in-law’s bones, or why she seems incapable of any emotion other than self-pity and loathing of her daughter (“I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” she says helpfully). Equally poorly drawn, India comes across as moody and apathetic, a cold-hearted, ultra sensitive kid who dearly misses her father, but falls for the man who might well have killed him.
Some of this is no doubt Chan-Wook’s imitable style. The revered director of Oldboy and Thirst often revels in these kinds of peculiar emotional configurations, but here, in his first English-speaking film, everything feels amped up as if he were desperately trying to impress us. Southern Gothics are melodramatic almost by definition, but they are really just hyped-up emotional responses that you could otherwise find in the natural world. Not trumped up outbursts from space aliens.
Kidman always does good work, and Wasikowska, given the lead role, can convey an incredible amount with the smallest movement of her mouth. But it’s as if the actors all received the instruction to speak as affectless and banal as zombies. An early dinner table scene, with the three of them all trying to under-emote each other comes across as quasi-satire, not, I strongly suspect, what their director was hoping.
Stuffed with a steady stream of dream-like sequences and absurdities, the film traffics in improbabilities in such a way that we never get anchored down by any of its endless visual and auditory tricks. They can use all the advanced sound-scaping they want, but Chan-Wook and his team can’t entirely drown out the sound of a colossal emotional misfire.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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