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.
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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.
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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.
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In the dialogue-free opening sequence of Shame director Steve McQueen introduces us to Brandon (Michael Fassbender) a handsome New Yorker who goes through a morning routine tackles the responsibilities of his high profile day job socializes with co-workers and all the while struggles with an insatiable desire for sexual pleasure. As the strings of composer Harry Escott's score swell we see Brandon in two scenarios: holding back from advancing on a beautiful young subway-rider and succumbing to carnal instinct with the help of a prostitute. It's a powerful setup for Fassbender's breathtaking performance which ranks among the best of the year.
Shame forcefully declares that sex addiction is just as tangible devastating and perplexing as any drug or alcohol problem but does so without didactic lessons or over-the-top indulgences. Fassbender's Brandon is on the other end of the spectrum from Nicolas Cage's crazed alcoholic character in Leaving Las Vegas with McQueen breaking long stretches of repression with harrowing moments of emotionless lust. The film works as a character portrait following Brandon as he finds himself falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole and witnessing the effects of his descent on the people around him. Picking up women isn't a problem for the dashing gent—he does so with ease on many an occasion—but when he tries dating the one woman he has feelings for he's void of sexual stamina. Unfortunately even in the sprawling city of New York there's no outlet for Brandon to confide in—his work buddies are all looking for an easy lay and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who shows up at his door one inopportune day has a heap of her own problems.
McQueen shoots Shame with precision that never feels staged each scene camera angle and directorial choice amplifying Brandon's dizzying situation Whether Brandon's entranced by Sissy's passionate rendition of "New York New York " working off his own sexual frustration with a quick jog or seducing a barfly's girlfriend at a hole-in-the-wall joint Fassbender and McQueen work in perfect tandem to bring the audience into the struggle. You will feel the raw power of Brandon unleashing his sex drive and you will feel the sadness behind Fassbender's face as he drifts alone through the city streets. Both moods are powerful moving and true.
Shame doesn't have an easy-to-swallow narrative a real beginning or an end. When you expect things to align into a traditional structure McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan subvert expectations—as life often does. What keeps us engrossed is Fassbender who can pull off the balancing act of suave and broken without tipping us off that he's acting at all. Shame received an NC-17 rating because of its racy imagery but the real maturity on display in the film is the bare bones depiction of human behavior.