Stoker

Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson (contributing writer)
Year: 2013
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman

★★★★☆

Best known for the brilliant cult revenge thriller Oldboy, Korean director Chan-wook Park’s debut English-language film is stylish, seductive and frequently ludicrous, an unscrupulous Hitchcockian romp around an isolated country estate. Wentworth Miller’s first script is unabashedly derivative, lifting plot points, imagery and virtually whole characters from a number of sources, notably Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but Park’s sharp direction ensures that Stoker is wildly entertaining in spite of its flaws.

Having lost her doting father in a horrific car accident on her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is forced to live alone with her unstable mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), before her mysterious, charismatic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears at the funeral and moves in to help them through their difficult time. Caught up in his overt refinement and clean good looks, Evelyn is oblivious to his true motives but India, who has vague extra-sensory powers and a odd, near-psychic connection with her uncle, is onto him straight away. He cooks them extravagant meals without taking a bite, hinting at the vampirism of the title, and tries to implant himself in every aspect of their lives. But it is only when their long-standing housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) and India’s suspicious aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) disappear in quick succession that his violent nature is made explicit and we understand that he will go to any lengths to obtain what he desires.

Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode Stoker

Goode knows exactly the type of character he is supposed to be channelling and measures his performance perfectly, right to the borderline of pastiche, while Kidman is well-suited to playing the bored, desperate housewife. Wasikowska gives an equally strong turn; India is disturbed, tortured and only ever half-innocent, a high school student and social outcast trying desperately to become adult.

Her burgeoning sexuality is essential to the film and the way it develops as the plot takes shape is as inventive as it is disturbing. As you would expect from Park, there are some controversial moments, including a violent masturbation scene, but it is mostly kept respectable enough. Sexual desire is portrayed through orgasmic, dionysian piano duets, composed and performed by Philip Glass, or dancing provocatively to the inimitable Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. The soundtrack works exceptionally well, as does Clint Mansell’s atmospheric score.

What is most interesting about Stoker is the way it imbalances, blurs the distinctions between reality and illusion, objectivity and subjectivity. There is some clever editing that toys with perspective and renders scenes out of sequence, implying that everything requires a second look. The film’s main weakness, though, is that some things still don’t quite add up. India can hear voices through a wall at a great distance and paint the inside of a vase without being able to see it, but, at times, is prone to missing what is right in front of her nose. It is meant to be disorienting, we are supposed to continually question what exactly is going on, but some plot elements are left underdeveloped, while others are verging on fantastical.

It is necessary to suspend disbelief, but the quickening pace ensures it never becomes too much of an issue. The second half is engrossing, particularly when the violence escalates and the complete family history is revealed. From the opening lines onward, there is much exploration of self-determination; the film questions whether we can ever be held responsible for what we become, especially when our identity is contrived before we are fully conscious of it. At the end of Oldboy, the central character takes responsibility for his actions in an infamous scene, whereas in Stoker the opposite occurs. An intimation of cultural differences, perhaps. Stoker is violent, but it is more perverse than horrifying, seductive than repulsive. It is a gloriously entertaining piece of cinema, brazen and almost tawdry, without meaning or conscience.

Rob Dickie

Advertisements

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Director: David Fincher
Writer: Steven Zaillian, Stieg Larsson (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgård

★★☆☆☆

Admittedly, I have never understood the popularity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The novel was dubbed sensationally as Sweden’s answer to War and Peace,to which it bears absolutely no resemblance, and, even withstanding such hyperbole, was a supreme disappointment. It is a readable thriller but is deeply flawed stylistically and structurally. I was not interested enough to read the sequels, or to see the 2009 Swedish adaptation.

However, the first trailer for David Fincher’s American version was tantalising, with its super slick editing and darkly foreboding imagery, backed by the glorious cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who were responsible for the film’s score, and featuring Karen O on vocals. The song is used again during the opening credits, which are instantly energising and get the adrenaline flowing, much as the trailer did. They look like an oily corruption of a James Bond title sequence. Unfortunately, despite not having technically started, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is never as good again.

It will make your skin crawl more than once, but the overall effect is numbing.

Following the opening titles, we are introduced to the parallel storylines of the two main characters, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who has just lost a high profile libel case against a leading industrialist, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who is struggling with the financial restrictions and sexual abuse of a state-appointed guardian (Yorick van Wageningen). Salander is a very modern heroine, a brilliant hacker with intriguing psychological issues, goth-punk styling and sexual ambivalence to boot – the fantastist core of the Millennium Trilogy. Mara looks the part and gives the well established character an ice-cold edge.

Blomkvist is comparatively uninteresting, necessarily so to create a sense of balance. He is not particularly likeable, has no qualms about sleeping with married women and, at the beginning of the film, has largely brought about his own downfall. Craig is perfectly suited to play him, bland enough to allow other characters to take centre stage, but charismatic when he needs to be. He is also the only actor not to bother with a Swedish accent, barring a few incomprehensible lines, which is a curiosity rather than a problem. When promised a solution to the professional and financial problems brought about by his court case, Blomkvist accepts a proposal from an ageing but wealthy businessman, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to try and solve the decades-old mystery of his niece’s murder. As if to taunt him, the killer continues to send Henrik pressed wild flowers on his birthday, just as his niece did when she was alive.

The film follows the plot of the novel exactly, with the exception of a pragmatic change to the ending. However, this a problem rather than a virtue. The central mystery is uninteresting and its solution unsurprising. It relies heavily on coincidence and good fortune, to the extent that the investigative work is merely a sideshow leading to an undeveloped tangent. Various members of the Vanger family are introduced at the beginning but few are relevant to the plot and only one is a credible suspect; most get less screen time than Blomkvist’s stray cat. As in the novel, the tacked-on ending is wholly unnecessary; it eliminates any sense of climax, and extends an already lengthy runtime.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo lacks the necessary mystery to work as one, but only sporadically tries to be anything else. It should have been the hard and fast feel-bad movie the trailer promised, but it ends up as little more than a processional reformulation of the source material. Its strengths lie in exploitation; the brutal encounter between Salander and her guardian is difficult to watch but sickeningly powerful, while the sequence in which the murderer is identified is darkly comic and extremely good fun. Even these scenes, excellent though they are, are marred by a discomforting contrast in tone. And in comparison, the bulk of the film is either too serious or too restrained. Loyalty to the novel is a problem; adaptation allows leeway for changes, and if Fincher genuinely wanted to achieve anything, he should have insisted on them. The film is more polished than the novel, but suffers from many of the same problems.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not exactly a franchise in need of reinvigorating but, under Fincher’s direction, this still feels like a missed opportunity. It is technically accomplished in almost every sense, notably the cinematography, the acting and the score, but it lacks imagination, ambition and emotion. It is not gritty enough, or bold enough. At least it produced an exceptional song.

Rob Dickie

The Skin I Live In

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar, Thierry Jonquet (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet

★★★★★

Note: All my reviews contain spoilers. Most of the time they are insignificant. This is an exception. If you haven’t seen the film, go and see it. Note the number of stars; it will be worth it. Then come back and read.

It should go without saying that Pedro Almodóvar is a bold director, but The Skin I Live In could well be his boldest film yet. The central character, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), is a brilliant cosmetic surgeon who experiments on a beautiful woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), he keeps imprisoned in his house.

Almodóvar and his central character are both aesthetes, so it is not surprising that this film is an aesthetic triumph. Robert collects and lavishly displays works of art in his house, and, like other great artists, is obsessed with the idea of human perfection. Michaelangelo saw sculpture as the ideal means to reproduce this perfection; Robert has the means to sculpt humans themselves. He moulds Vera into the object of his desire, giving her a perfect figure and his dead wife’s face. Almodóvar and his cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine, are masterful at creating the shots to match this artistic obsession. Dead bodies are sprawled in Caravaggian poses, with rippling muscles and pools of deep red blood. The film has a decadent beauty; there is much of Oscar Wilde in it, and not just in the opium pipe.

The Skin I Live In

Vera also produces sculpture, but hers are grotesque modern forms growing out of the clay. She represents both perfection and deformity – it is a matter of perception – but, to herself, she is clearly the latter. Her room, unlike the rest of the house, is bare and cold. It is a modernist cube, a prison, decorated by her writing on the wall. It is also a gallery, designed to display her beauty to Robert through his cameras. She quite naturally takes up those poses familiar to art. Stylistically, her room also resembles the operating theatre; she is defined by her modifications. She wears a one piece black latex suit, a mask; these obscure her identity, her external value, her beauty.

Almodóvar has great style, but to focus only on the style here would be missing the point. Superficiality is punished brutally in the film. What lies beneath the skin has never been so significant. The character of Zeca (Roberto Álamo) identifies himself through a birthmark and mistakes Vera for Robert’s dead wife because they have the same face. Vicente (Jan Cornet) sees a pretty girl remove her cardigan and shoes and assumes she wants to have sex with him. Both commit rapes based on these misjudgements. Finally, Robert allows himself to be deceived by Vera’s face, her skin, ignoring, or forgetting, what lies beneath it.

Vera is the only character who, because of who she is, cannot be superficial. She becomes a character of great depth; through suffering, through yoga, through sculpture, she is forced inwards and learns the meaning of identity and what lies at the core of her being. She is transformed; she grows.

So who is Vera? Almodóvar is a master of non-linear narrative, and he uses the technique to great effect to obscure, and then to reveal her identity. The realisation of what is truly going on comes gradually. An apparent subplot becomes the very foundation of the film and the effect is staggering. A shocking story appears to reach its climax before Almodóvar pulls the rug from under our feet, forcing us to question everything that has gone before. There is no grand reveal, the details come slowly. Almodóvar lets us realise for ourselves and the twist is all the more shocking for it.

Vicente raped Robert’s daughter, out of naivety rather than malice, which drove her to insanity and suicide. Robert kidnapped Vicente and gradually transformed him into a woman, into Vera. Prior to this flashback, Robert rescued Vera as she was being raped by Zeca, and freed her from her room. They made a pact to live together as equals, as lovers. The last shot we were shown was them sharing a bed.

Almodóvar’s insistence on moral ambiguity is what makes The Skin I Live In a great film. Motivation is everything. The basics are there, but specific details are difficult to extract. At what stage did Robert see Vera as anything more than an experiment? When did he decide to give her his dead wife’s face, and why? It is inconceivable that he imagined they would end up sharing a bed together from the beginning, but it is equally inconceivable that it had not crossed his mind until the end. As for the ending, at what stage did Vera decide to kill Robert? Did she attempt to forget who she was in order to keep her vow to him? It is certainly hinted at. Did she abhor Robert himself, or the identity he had given her, or did she simply lament the loss of the one he had taken away? Did she consider him to be a monster? Banderas, incidentally, is monstrous, precisely because he refuses to play the monster. His character is dangerous, obsessive, arrogant, but as Vera approaches him holding the gun that will kill him, he asks her, with a straight face, if she is joking. You might say he had a lot of nerve asking her that. It is also a kind of innocence.

The final scene is strangely touching given what has come before. Vera returns to her mother’s shop where she, as Vicente, used to work. She explains to her former colleague, a lesbian she had fallen for, what happened to her. She then tells her mother who she really is and breaks down into tears. The screen fades to black. This is an affirmation of identity, a fundamental identity, not a history, an appearance, a gender, but a soul. At heart Vera will always be Vicente, and whatever that represents. However, Almodóvar does not make the ending straightforward. The tone is not one of regret. It is hinted that Vera may get the girl, and, in doing so, achieve something Vicente never could. She is already a much stronger character than he ever was. There may yet be a Hollywood ending in store. Almodóvar does not go so far as to suggest it. To portray it would be tantamount to vindication. That would be too bold.

Rob Dickie