The credits for Stoker, the new Chan-Wook Park movie that debuted at Sundance Sunday night, run backwards. Yes, instead of blooming up from the bottom of the screen and traveling up, they pour down from the top in a slow cascade. You'd think this wouldn't make that much of a difference, but it is extremely unsettling, seeing something you're so used to seeing but going in the opposite direction.
Likewise, in this world where spoiling the ending of a movie for someone is tantamount to cutting off one of their digits, I shouldn't be starting a review of a movie with the end, but I think that Stoker deserves it. When Park, who directed the brutal Oldboy, was introducing the movie, he said it is meant to be a dream or a fairy tale, but it is more like a waking nightmare. Everything is slightly off in the movie. Everything is either too large, too small, too modern, too old fashioned, too fast, too slow, too dirty, or too cleanly. It is our world, but tremendously askew, kiltering in one direction and then another, like trying to walk in a straight line after rolling down a hill.
The style only serves the story of India (Mia Wasikowska) who tells us at the beginning of the film that she has super powers: she can see far-away things clearly and hear sounds that no one else can hear. The morose teen gets even sadder when her beloved father dies in an accident and she is left in the care of her cold mother (Nicole Kidman) and her father's brother (Matthew Goode), who appears mysteriously after being absent for decades. The story unspools in unexpected ways as India starts to get interested in boys and discovers her sexuality thanks to the proximity of her handsome uncle. There are also several mysteries to unravel, each one leading to a new one with unexpected, horrible violence leading to even more violence until a shocking conclusion.
RELATED: Review: '21 & Over' Designed to Ruin Anyone 18 & Under
The performances are all stellar with Wasikowska telegraphing ever-shifiting emotion without barely saying a word. Kidman, who speaks much more, is at her finest as a disinterested mother. She shows fear and disdain in the most subtle ways, never overplaying a character that could turn into a campy arch villain with just the tiniest bit of scene-chewing. And Goode is the most menacing of all, the malevolent force that hides behind the facade not only of normalcy but of something attractive that you know is incredibly dangerous.
As for the meaning, I'm not sure what screenwriter Wentworth Miller (yes, the same guy who wore all those tattoos for seasons on Prison Break) is going for. Can this fairy tale teach us anything about humanity or sexuality? The ending leads it in a direction that would take some of the more outrageous elements and turn them into a farce. It also makes the story more central to Wasikowska's character when the thing up until that point had been an exercise in showing us all how messed up our teen years can be.
RELATED: Hollywood.com's Complete Coverage of Sundance 2013
But this isn't a farce, it is a fairy tale, complete with a girl in peril who has to fight to save herself. There's running through the woods, magical intervention, and everything we've come to expect for the 13 Snow White movies that came out last year. Still this is like a more chilling version of Beetlejuice, except this gothic fun house has none of the whimsy of Tim Burton. Here every strange perspective is meant to make you uncomfortable. Some of the elements of the story are so outrageous to be unbelievable and many will probably find this film to be groanworthy and insane in a bad way. Still it is unlike anything you've ever seen and will stick in your mind like a spider crawling across your skull. Love it or hate it, you'll be transfixed from beginning to end – when the credits start to roll backwards, making even your final moments with this film particularly off-putting.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.