Although the true nature of Project Silverscreen is the subject of heated discussion among web historians, most scholars can agree that it was almost certainly a feature of this very blog and was likely focused loosely on classic film. Unfortunately, since the last entry was recently dated a frightening 36 billion Tweets old, a fresh re-branding has been prescribed and will be carried out posthaste.
This is Project Silverscreen NEO.
Preface Postface: As Stoker is relatively new and I am relatively kind, this review avoids explicit spoilers. However, for the interest of discussion, some plot details are inevitable.
Do people change?
Fictional ones do, at least. Fiction is so brimming with hero journeys and three act lives that a pop culture consumer might start to buy into the idea. Maybe the extra self-reflection awards some journeymen with deep, corrective insight; in my experience, though, comparisons with the reductive growth of calculated protagonists lead only to pangs of dissatisfaction and romantically-distorted expectations. Sugar helps the medicine go down, but it is increasingly difficult to detect a trace of medicine in the power fantasies and manic pixie dream diets today’s film audiences are trough-fed.
Stoker is an overdose. In the cold dialogue and colder performances, one immediately tastes the bitter hint of a movie that shouldn’t work. In Stoker, characters crave violence (and, fair warning, carnally: the movie might have been renamed Stroker, as the film’s school bully keenly suggests) and yet this violence is not fetishized or padded with exaggeration. In Stoker, there are no characters that serve as moral ciphers. In Stoker, there is only a chilling absence where the protagonist should be. It’s fucking nuts, then, that Stoker is not only a fascinating study of sociopathy but a riveting film in its own right.
Let’s get my problems with the movie out of the way; there are two. First, the film is top-heavy with clumsy, expository exchanges that sound about as natural as an Emo Philips joke. India is supposedly attune to details and sounds that others overlook, but the idea that housemaids and caretakers walk around spouting Information like JRPG NPCs is difficult for me to reconcile with the rest of the movie, which is subtle, suggestive, symbolic, and nowhere near as jarringly loud these two points of contention. The second of said points is Stoker’s high school “bullying” scenes, which seem to have been culled almost entirely from Nickelodeon’s Doug. In one scene, the school’s head bully shouts blatant rape threats while sitting behind India in art class and capturing her crude likeness in a nude sketch. The teacher, somehow oblivious to the first 90% of the bully’s extreme abuse, responds to the hubbub with the verbal equivalent of a slap on the wrist; the scene ends. The extent of the school authorities’ absolute terror under this kid’s reign becomes clear in the second “bullying” scene, in which Head Bully makes a few more rape jokes while perched on a discarded armchair throne (one of four or five which are inexplicably sitting on the grass near the sidewalk that India uses as a detour on this particular school day). He’s presented as a secondary school sultan or, alternatively, a Heathcliff villain. His jokes (which are about as sophisticated as you’d expect from a cow-licked, adolescent shit) didn’t offend my sensibilities, but the ridiculous, cartoonish representation of bullying did; it’s lifted straight from an after-school special, sans rape-related content. Maybe these blunt scenes are meant to reflect India’s heightened senses; whatever the case, they simply do not match the measured confidence with which the remainder of the film is conveyed.
There. I’m done bitching.
Criticisms aside, the majority of Stoker is gorgeously composed and very much in line with director Park Chan-wook’s filmography. Certain shots and transitions in Stoker are every bit as striking as the best scenes from his Vengeance trilogy. On the surface, Stoker fits right in: it even features the breathless two-act construction of many of Park’s films, leaving the audience disoriented and unable to calculate how many minutes are left until the resolution in Act Three allows them to expectorate Acts One and Two into the nearest porcelain bowl. However, like an icebox with something sinister resting beneath the Chunky Monkey, India’s story is frostbitten to its core.
In previous Park films, we meet good people who are forced into nasty situations. “Sympathy” commands an equal share opposite “Vengeance.” On a broader level, it’s commonly accepted that a palatable movie requires someone the audience can get behind, or else the film must punish the shit out of those unruly, fictional bastards until they redeem themselves on their death beds. Stoker absolutely refutes such a narrative while remaining completely watchable (for those of solid constitution), maybe even enjoyable or cathartic. Park’s New England mansion is inhabited by disassociated personalities who shock and disgust in their defiance to change for the better. India does not see herself as one person, but rather as a stalk of wheat arrested by the wind. There is a girl for every angle of her face; each change in her environment creates another India and destroys the last. Stoker’s is a curiously Zen-like representation of sociopathy, a meditation on the result of Self absolution. The concept of India as one comprehensive being does not exist. Consequently, she only feels responsibility toward Newton’s third law. She is almost purely reactive.
India’s actions are told in a boggling, recursive fashion. Pieces of the film’s plot are pressed flush into place only to be yanked later and jammed elsewhere. You’ll spend as much time hashing out Stoker’s particulars after the credits as you will deciphering India’s muted expressions during the movie. Revealing scenes force the viewer to return to previous events and expand the initially elided account.
It’s not just the storytelling: every element of Stoker is duplicitous. The characters, India, her mother Eve, and psychotic charmer Uncle Charlie, flip like dynamic billboards. The direction moves like a magic eye puzzle, driven by clever transitions and juxtapositions. The dreamlike composition is sometimes symmetrical, sometimes starkly contrasting. The plot, to reiterate, doubles back on itself in mystifying contortions like Ouroboros or an advanced chapter of the Kama Sutra.
Perhaps Stoker warns against the dangers of expectations. India loses herself in letters, books, memories of her father, and detaches from a tragic reality until she discovers her criteria for happiness has been disturbingly and permanently altered. We watch romantic comedies and underdog tales and our expectations are skewed to demand marked character growth, three clean acts, and a happy ending to boot. Then again, by attempting to extract a simple lesson I might be missing the point entirely. Maybe, like India the loving daughter, the point does not exist.
Here’s what I do know: during my sophomore year at university, I was enrolled in a class dedicated to the reading and writing of the “personal essay.” I did honest work in that class. I wrote about depression and personal ghosts, or at least the figments I then mistook for phantoms. My best essay, however, ends with a sunny spin. There is the classic implication of real “corner-turning” and the uplifting promise of a “lesson learned.” I’d like to be able to defend the essay’s final paragraph and say that it wasn’t just manipulative artifice. I’d like to say I’ve changed, that I’m different now.
I can say that my professor loved it.
If you, unlike that professor probably, dug Stoker, check out Chan-wook Park’s trilogy of excellent thrillers: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and (my personal favorite) Lady Vengeance. If you didn’t dig Stoker and are probably a much happier person for it, watch them anyway. Take your medicine, it’s good for you.