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The Best Move You Never Saw: Stoker

11.06.2015

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at STOKER.

THE STORY:

THE PLAYERS: director Park Chan-wook. Actors Nicole Kidman, Matthew GoodeMia Wasikowska, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Lucas Till, and Aiden Ehrenreich. Screenwriter Wentworth Miller. Composer Clint Mansell.

Also, harvestmen.

THE HISTORY:STOKER began as a script writtern by PRISON BREAK star Wentworth Miller, released out into the wilds of Hollywood under the pseudonym Ted Foulke. It swiftly joined 2010's Black List - a compilation of the best unproduced screenplays in a given year - and by January 2011 Park Chan-wook was already on board to make his English-language debut with Mia Wasikowska attached to star. Casting continued through to the end of the summer, with the only real hitch being the recruitment of Matthew Goode in replacement for Colin Firth after scheduling issues reared their mischievous heads. Filming occurred over a forty day period, mostly in Nashville, and wrapped on October 23rd of the same year (talk about a turnaround!).

First shown at Sundance on January 20th, 2013, STOKER saw wide release on March 1st 2013 and a cumulative worldwide box office gross of just a hair over $12 million (thereby making back its budget almost to the dollar). Curiously, STOKER was released the same year at the English-language debuts of two other South Korean directors - Bong Joon-ho's SNOWPIERCER and Kim Jee-woon's THE LAST STAND, with director Park Chan-wook serving as producer on the former.

I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to dark roles, and it’s not like I pick and choose. But I love Park, the role became open, and I loved the script. The character was fascinating and the story was fascinating. There’s such a small amount of actors, and it’s quite meaty, although there’s not a lot of dialogue. So all of those things together mix up, and you’re jumping through hoops trying to keep your name in the hat for as long as possible. - Matthew Goode

WHY IT'S GREAT: All fairy tales are really about something else. And STOKER is one such story, where beneath the violence and the suggestion of violence and the creeping things and the madness and the sex and the twisted archetypes is the plain tale of a girl growing up. India Stoker experiences a trauma, a loss which not only deeply effects her personally but forces her to be alone with her mother for the first time. It forces her mother to be alone with her. But when the disturbingly disarming and confidently seductive Uncle Charlie shows up, both mother and daughter are forced further to discover the true nature of each other even as Charlie weaves his very special spell. And very different natures they are, one uncovered over the course of the film while the other is discovered. Thus STOKER finds itself in similar company to other new fairy tales that are as much beholden to the classic history of their storytelling language as they are disobedient and disruptive to the very structures that bound that past history, films like PAN'S LABYRINTH and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. Subjects of sexuality, of parental horror at witnessing a child's maturity, of loss and the expression(s) of grief, of vicious desire and violent anger are explored with seriousness and outbursts of hate and love and obsession are given their full and vibrant due.

Grim, disturbing, entrancing, STOKER slowly, mischievously crawls in under the skin and behind the eyes until it's all you can see and all you have left to do is discover yourself. That's a rare and lucky thing to have these days - and not just these days. Consider the specter of the title and the legacy it implies. Bram Stoker's Dracula was published in 1897 and immediately put readers under its spell not so much for its writing, atmospheric and evocative though it still is, but for the fun house mirror it presented to its emotionally restrained and physically restricted audience. This was a story that caused horror and sex to coalesce, bringing a starkly striking angle to the exploration of the sexual maturation and experience of London's young women. Similiarly to the Grimm fairy tales - which used enchantment and (often gory) violence hand in hand to frighten children onto the straight and narrow forest path of life - Stoker's creation brought the deep-seated fears of parents and husbands and young women to the surface, dragging them out of the dark earth where they'd lain so long. STOKER works a similar magic, albeit with a focus turned firmly towards the idea, the possibility and the positivity - of finding&freedom.

What I'm trying to say is that STOKER is, for lack of a possibly more elegant phrase, a fairy tale for adults. We don't get many of those these days.

I actually don’t think that Evelyn is evil. I felt that she was just starved for love and she has a child but she doesn’t connect to it. Director Park when we first met said to me, ever since you’ve held this baby, this baby never wanted to be held. And that’s an amazing way to build the relationship of a mother and child because that’s horrifying as a mother. I think that’s the thrust of her, this child that she had just doesn’t connect with her and she always trying in some way to connect. Obviously that has gotten broken down in years and years and India had a much stronger connection to her father. Then I just came up with my own thing that she’s just very starved for love and that creates a particular personality after a while. - Nicole Kidman

An absolutely essential element that brings this to pass is what Park Chan-wook brings to the tale and its telling. Anyone who has seen his previous work is aware of his ability to craft striking images, unsettling sequences, and beautiful moments. But STOKER is, to mix my metaphors, an altogether different beast in an entirely different ballpark. Subtle, exacting, elegent, meticulously composed and choreographed, it is a tone and compositional aesthetic that is seemingly organically born out of the storyworld itself and thus both appropriate and the only way this could work without turning full camp. Yet work it does, on level after level after level. It's a level of craftsmanship that echoes the very characters themselves - a surface viewing yields one story, one which is strong, effective, and affective. Another, closer viewing yields a hidden sea of metaphor, symbolism, imagery all embedded in the details, the actions, the transitions. Another even closer viewing suddenly yields to an almost dreamlike, kalaedescopic understanding of it all, the inner lives of the characters reflected in the landscape outside of them and their emotional/psychological journeys taking strange and twisting paths that somehow flow with a very natural grace.

It's a quality not far from one of the most admitted influences on the film - the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The easiest connection to make is through Uncle Charlie to one of Guillermo del Toro's top ten favorite films of all time, SHADOW OF A DOUBT. By all accounts there were once upon a time many more references to Hitchcock's work in the script, but director Park took special care to strip away nearly all of them and settle instead for capturing - and, in his way, warping - a general structural aesthetic that impressively manages to owe as much to Hitchcock's earlier films like SHADOW OF A DOUBT as it does to later ones like NORTH BY NORTHWEST. For Park the core of the story, the element that interested him the most, was the simplicity of "the confined family drama" as seen throught he experience of a curious teenage girl whose entire life is being subverted, inverted, and undone. Everything else, anything obviously definitive, was second in importance. And considering the elegent simplicity of the final product, it's clear he was exactly right to think so.

[Director Park] doesn’t speak that much English, although he understands it very well. Just a really nice guy. His suggestions musically, for what I would play for him… We would get together at the end of every day when I was working for him, and he’d come over and drink some red wine, watch the film and talk about the music and try different things. His sense and sensibility, even when he made minor suggestions to the music that I presented to him, those changes would have massive impact and really did bring a different viewpoint. For me it was a total dream, I loved it. - Clint Mansell

Speaking of the script, there's a good reason even the first draft of this to be sent out (which is always very different from an actual first draft) sparked so much attention so swiftly - it's damn good. Not only is it well constructed, not only are the characters at once complex and simple, heightened and human, willing to be unstable and flawed in ways wide release films don't often allow these days, but the dialogue in particular has a tone and construction unique unto itself that drips with atmosphere and charges every character interaction with all the eroticism, the desire, the violence, and the elegence of the images conjured by director Park. In fact, going a step further, the crafting of the language brings an odd, almost stylized civility to the dialogue that belies the nastiness underneath. Much like the character of Dracula himself, actually (see the clip included below for an excellent example of this).

They say that a good script can't carry bad actors but good actors can carry a bad script. We've has no concerns there, the cast using this film as an opportunity to one and all turn in work that's a level above where we've seen them before. From the twinkle of mischievous light and spark of desperate dark in Matthew Goode's eyes to Dermot Mulroney's worn and weary love, from Nicole Kidman's jenga tower of distintigration to Mia Wasikowska's subtle mutation from prey to hunter, STOKER provides that most perfect of cases where performance and character come together so well that they seem as much a part of the cinematic landscape as the curve of a staircase or the branch of a tree. It's an all-too rare thing to see, impressive not only on its own but for how Park Chan-wook achieved it through a translater and while working twice as fast as he normally does (back in South Korea he is able to take the time to watch the playback with his actors between every take). You've seen all of these actors in similar roles, you've seen flashes of the pieces that make up these human beings, but you've never seen them quite like this. The characters or the actors.

What I liked about [Wentworth Miller’s] script was that it wasn’t full of car chases or things blowing up, it wasn’t full of people chattering away. The remarkable thing about the script was that it was very quiet. There are opportunities to use sounds other than dialogue, and opportunities to bring in a lot of visual elements. There was a lot of room for me to breathe in a lot of my own into the script, and while being quiet, it was still full of palpable tension and fright. - Park Chan-wook

If you've ever seen an Aronofsky film, you've heard the work of Clint Mansell. You've heard its power, its inventiveness, how it can drift effectively between tragic, disconcerting, and inspiring within a single song. Similar to the level of acting commitment you'll find on display in this film, ou haven't heard anything quite like Mansell's performance here. Not only for how it plays by itself, extracted from the film, but for how it sinks itself so snugly into the tone and atmosphere that the film is elevated yet again. With tinges of the ancient, the wonder, and the horror that you'll find throughout his work, the pieces that make up this soundtrack are as much a fairy tale as the story itself. They lull you with sweet melodies and sad melodies, they prick your attention with bells and rhythm lines and high piano notes, they draw you in with their hypnotic progression (curious especially considering how Philip Glass was originally meant to do the score), and then they take whatever part of you the film is engaging at that moment - gut, heart, memory, mind - and twists it in ways you won't expect. For a real treat, listen to "A Family Affair" and follow it immediately with "Becoming."

STOKER isn't for everybody. The ephemeral atmosphere, the creeping pace, the seeming simplicity of the light veneer, the heightened expressions of emotion that leap out like tigers when suddenly pushed too far - STOKER isn't even for every fan of Park Chan-wook, with an overall sensibility that has greater connective tissue with more recent work like THIRST than it does his more famous pieces. But if you want something a little sexy with a lot of disturbing, something that has a power to draw you in and make you helpless to stay, something that will seemingly magically manage to lull you before shearing you a strangely human nightmare with made of shoes, harvestmen, sex, and blood, then STOKER may just be worth adding to the list.

You don’t know if India’s a hero or a villain, the hunter or the hunted. The film toys with your perception. It’s a weird love triangle between a mother, an uncle and a daughter. That feels very modern and very classic, at the same time. - Mia Wasikowska

BEST SCENE: 

Picking the best scene from STOKER that's not also a spoiler for one thing or another is a tricky task to take on. It's not even necessarily a matter of plot twists - the film is just such an immaculately constructed web that to pull out a single strand would do a cheapening disservice to both it and other connected scenes. So what we have is a very good clip, one in which Nicole Kidman shines with a performance that shows us the moment for the character when the mask of her life, so recently mended, spiderwebs with cracks right before her eyes. She looks at her daughter, and spits out - well, you'll soon see. Performance, tone, aesthetic, design, carefully constructed language - they're all here.  

SEE IT:

You can buy STOKER on Blu-Ray + DVD HERE!

PARTING SHOT:

I'm not the kind of director who aims to send a message out. But if you had to twist my arm, [for Stoker] it would be: in knowing yourself, you can liberate yourself... one commonality running through all my films, I suppose, is a person who rises up against fate, or who’s not afraid of fighting against fate, or who doesn’t run away from fate, in other words. Regardless of whether that effort is successful or a failure, that very act of standing up against fate is a noble thing. - Park Chan-wook

Extra Tidbit: Considering how STOKER is a sneakily sideways adaptation of Dracula (vampiric characters, the tall dark and mysterious stranger who brings sexual awakening while sewing discord, the close connection between sex and violence, etc.), do you have any favorite similarly sneakily sideways cinematic adaptations?
Source: JoBlo

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