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‘Stoker,’ tries too hard to be suspenseful

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Back in 2003, a violent gut-punch of a movie came out of South Korea titled “Oldboy.” Many who saw the film were instantly taken by its twisted story of revenge, not to mention one of the most shocking endings in cinematic history. Fast forward ten years and you have director Park Chan-Wook’s first foray into American mainstream cinema, “Stoker.” The film unfortunately doesn’t quite reach the bar set by it’s director, but the blame can’t all be put on him. This was a group effort.

The film centers around India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), an 18-year-old loner who just lost her father in a car wreck. During the funeral, Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up wanting to reconnect with the family. India’s unstable mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is instantly taken by him, but India, not so much. She can sense something sinister about this long lost, possibly homicidal uncle, yet finds herself strangely drawn to him also.

Wasikowska (‘Jane Eyre,’ ‘The Kids Are Alright’) shows spark as a young girl coming to terms, but there’s a slight disconnect between the events that occur and her reactions. Kidman does her best to tune into her character’s deteriorating psyche, exposing Evelyn’s unhappiness in small bits. Yet, it’s Uncle Charlie who is the most drawn out and Goode (‘Watchmen’) commits to the part, revealing his character’s motives.

Technically, the film achieved its gothic look with ease. Chan-Wook works carefully with his Cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, to make every image pop. The duo also blend color schemes with character actions and emotions to serve the script by Wentworth Miller (yes, the guy from Prison Break).

As a storyteller, Miller tries to put a Hitchcock spin on the coming-of-age tale, hinting at notes of dread and building suspense, but it doesn’t pay off. Mainly because our heroine never comes around, which makes it difficult to know what she’s up to. Is she scared of her uncle? Does she love her uncle? Does she even know how she feels? Probably not, but I get the gist. She’s growing up. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but it’s a shame the movie couldn’t figure that out. Instead it tries to be a thriller with adolescent issues of its own.

It’s easy to dismiss the film for being confusing, or slightly pretentious. Regardless of its visual beauty, “Stoker” never manages to turn it’s parts into a whole. Chan-Wook maniacally plays with the scene direction and camera movement to the point of completely pulling us out of the story, inadvertently exposing the gaping holes in the plot. Instead of being involved in the movie, I kept questioning if he was overcompensating intentionally. It really is too bad. If only more attention was focused on the plot instead of style, “Stoker” could’ve been much more effective.

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