Stoker

Shoemaggeddon

India StokerDoes Stoker mark the return of symbolism in film?  Regardless of how you read the interwoven narrative imagery, the post-Hitchcock camera acrobatics, and the sheer haunting uniqueness of it all, Stoker does things with cinematography unlike anything any of us are likely to see duplicated in the foreseeable future.

I may have used the term “image pattern” when looking at films before, but it’s a literary term, and this is the first film I’ve seen that uses image patterning in a literary way.  Consider the opening, in which a spider crawls up the stockinged leg of the lead character, India Stoker (the incomparable Mia Wasikowska) while she’s playing the piano.  An inexplicable sense of suspense follows the spider, despite the fact that we have no clue what kind of spider it is, whether it intends to harm her, or what it means if she smashes it.  But this scene is not resolved yet, despite the seemingly miniscule stakes relying upon its resolution.  Instead, since it revolves entirely around the image of the spider, it joins a string of short scenes, collected as the film’s story moves forward, that also revolve around nebulously-related imagery, including India lying in tall grass with a hunting rifle and awaiting her father’s (Dermot Mulroney) okay to take a critical shot at a fluttering bird; the image of the bird itself; people making snow-angels on surfaces other than snow; and others.  These scenes, which I might call micro-narratives, weave into the forward action in such a way that wondering where that spider ends up (and why) weighs as heavily on the audience as do thoughts about who’s going to live through the film’s central ordeal.  The starkest and most overt piece of imagery, though, focuses on India’s shoes and feet – we first see her popping a blister after running through the woods, realizing that she has outgrown her favorite shoes (unique blue-and-white low-tops which, were the world still small, would be selling out of department stores right about now).  But on her 18th birthday, as on every other birthday, she receives another pair of the same shoes.  I use the word “symbolism” because there are very clear “Who is what?” and “What means what?” questions silently posed to the audience through color and repetition.

The story that collects these images involves the young India, whose father, Richard, has recently died in a rather mysterious car accident.  India’s mother, Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), is known to be very dependent, and the wealthy Stoker family’s servants assume that India will be the one taking care of things from now on, not her mother.  Out of nowhere appears India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who claims that since his brother is dead, he will temporarily stay with the family and help take care of their massive property during their time of grief.  The catch?  Neither Evelyn nor India ever knew that Richard had any siblings.  Evelyn, ever reliant on others, is intrigued by Charlie and welcomes all of his methods of comfort.  India, introverted and sheltered, doesn’t know what to make of her uncle.  Does he want to replace her father?  It doesn’t help that her relationship with her mother is strained and loveless, and that she will let no one touch her.  When Charlie claims that he just wants to be friends, India responds that “We don’t have to be friends.  We’re family.”

The beautiful and haunted piano/string score by Clint Mansell demands that this film take a turn for the macabre, and the red lights surround Uncle Charlie as soon as he appears.  What, we must wonder, does he want from the family?  Thankfully, India asks this the first time she’s alone with him, and we’re not left with a list of obvious questions that inept characters in horror movies never ask.  But the film’s sense of unsettling perplexity, not to mention what amounts to gorgeously-presented visual and aural poetry, allows us the knowledge that Charlie is the villain early on without ruining any of the intrigue.  During dinner with India’s visiting great-aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), Evelyn mentions Charlie’s world travels, and a horrified look washes over Gin’s face before she tells Evelyn they need to talk about Charlie.  Before this can happen, Charlie murders her and a housekeeper who also seemed to know something about him.  Even more interesting is the fact that it seems like Charlie wants India to know about his penchant for killing and burying people (regardless, she finds out when she attempts to phone Auntie Gin at her hotel, and hears the latter’s ringtone coming from beneath the soil in the backyard).

Meanwhile, the greatest conflict is a case of Character vs. Self: India is eighteen and ready to wake up, ready to be “free,” as she puts it in a too-telling-but-not-telling-enough voiceover.  But she’s been cooped in her parents’ home her entire life and her only solace is in music.  She’s an accomplished pianist.  She is ostracized at school for being “weird” and seemingly asexual.  When she witnesses her mother and Charlie growing intimate, she imitates them and seeks the affections of Whip Taylor (Alden Ehrenreich), a classmate she trusts.  But she only wants to kiss him.  He has other plans, and attacks her.  Charlie, who shamelessly stalks India, materializes out of the shadows, and the body count rises.  She helps him bury the body, and we begin to worry for her.  Later, in the shower, she masturbates while thinking about the murder.  India, whose coming-of-age has seemingly been delayed, is awakening, but the admixture of Uncle Charlie and the violent nature of her own life prevent this awakening from being her own.

Through one thing and another, with the assorted micro-narratives vying for top-shelf plot importance, the truth comes out: Charlie, while on his apparent world travels, wrote dozens of letters to India as she grew, hoping to one day meet her.  The letters were intercepted by Richard, who locked them in his study for reasons unknown to India until she looks at the back of the envelopes and realizes that Charlie never traveled the world; he was shut away in a mental institution for most of his life.  India also discovers that her father and Charlie had another brother, Jonathan, whom Charlie killed as a child out of jealously for his relationship with Richard.  On India’s eighteenth birthday, Charlie was released from the institution, but then murdered Richard after the latter refused to let him meet India (and for good reason).  But India’s inner conflict is still approaching a boil, and she does not act out as we expect the protagonist of a thriller to do.  Charlie’s beautiful prose still dazzles her, and after another fight with her mother, she tells Charlie she will travel with him to New York.  He presents her with another box of shoes, but this time, they are not the identical blue-and-whites she has worn her entire life; these are high heels, the societal symbol of female adulthood (and, I might add, a patriarchal device for physically constraining women, and there’s something to be said for that here).  India steps into them and walks with ease.

Evelyn, realizing what is happening and reaching the point of ultimate fury at being unable to bond with her daughter, asks, “You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?”  When Charlie’s last plan before leaving the Stoker home is to seduce and kill Evelyn, expecting India to help him, the results are quite different, and as India brings out her old hunting rifle, the mosaic of micro-narrative images comes to a crescendo (as does Mansell’s score).  This scene – and this bears repeating – is so disparate from anything in recent film narrative, that it’s a miracle we are able to cling to the characters through the fantastically musical realization of virtually everything we have encountered in the film so far – including the spider.  It begins on the floor, makes its way up India’s leg, crawls up her thigh and past the hem of her skirt, and is last seen slipping across Charlie’s doornail-dead face.  No, India seems to say, I will not be controlled this way; this gift you gave me, I will give back.

The final scene, whether needed or not, poses some questions and answers other ones.  What kind of woman has India become?  Whether or not she’s leaving the Stoker home for good, and regardless of her methods, one thing is clear: she’s going to protect her family’s name, and to a separate-but-equal extent, her mother.

Mia Wasikowska, who gleamed as Jane Eyre in 2011, finally gets another starring role in which to showcase her various gifts.  Look at the difference in these performances.  More importantly, India is a strong character.  She’s layered and exists beyond her quirks, beyond what the plot calls for.  An introvert, a musician, a painter, a hunter. Reflexes like you’ve never seen.  A sheltered girl considering what it means to come of age before she goes ahead and does it.  Is the film commenting on womanhood?  I imagine that different viewers will have different readings of it, but all of the clues (think micro-narrative) must lead somewhere.  I am still flabbergasted that this film was scripted by Wentworth Miller (and kind of impressed that he submitted it using a pen name so that the film could be published upon its own merits and not his fame), an actor I would not have thought to possess such feminine sensibilities (violence notwithstanding).  The joke is on me.

This is an important film.

P.S. Thematic voiceover is still sloppy and flaccid.

Stoker_teaser_posterStoker (2013); written by Wentworth Miller; directed by Park Chan-wook; starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman. 

Side Effects

And he guessed at the number of script rewrites as a child guesses at jellybeans in a jar

Rooney MaraBy the third act of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, you will feel lied to.  And appropriately: the film does what A Beautiful Mind did, but in the wrong way – making the audience think the story is about one thing, and then making it about something else.  Ron Howard’s film, based on a man’s true life experiences with auditory hallucinations, appeared at first (to the layman/non-trailer-watcher) to be about a math whiz inducted into the CIA due to his uncanny ability to make connections between important pieces of information, when in reality, he’s suffering from schizophrenia and inventing the entire thing.  Here, we have a story that at first purports to be about a “very sick girl” suffering from serious depression and being riddled with useless medications, and most refreshingly, seems to be one of the only honest movies about depression itself, but it isn’t that.  It turns out to be – and I don’t use this term lightly – ugh.

The linchpin by which this film remains what the casual viewer would call a “pretty good movie” and not a total wash is, of course, Rooney Mara, who plays the main character – named Emily Taylor – and who gleamed as Lisbeth Salander in 2011 (and was more worthy of the Best Actress Oscar than anyone else nominated that year).  The story begins when Emily picks up her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from a four year prison sentence and attempts to reconnect.  There are no longer any sparks, however, and Emily is severely depressed, going through episodes that the couple’s friends and Martin himself simply cannot understand.  Finally, she goes to see psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a recently-married doctor who sees an opportunity for extra money by participating in a study of some new depression meds.  He prescribes them to Emily, who is desperate for any relief whatsoever, and they’re seemingly ineffective.  While sleepwalking one night, Emily stabs Martin to death and calmly goes back to bed, her bare feet soaked with blood.

Now we have a real dilemma: who is at fault?  Emily, who physically performed the killing and doesn’t remember a thing, or Banks, who prescribed the pills that turned her into a sleepwalking, knife-wielding zombie?  Banks, feeling sympathy for Emily and wanting to clear his name, as his entire life – including his practice (his partners do not want to be affiliated with someone who so recklessly caused a tragedy) and his wife, Dierdre (Vinessa Shaw) – is threatened.  Wonderful, I said to myself.  Finally, a story in an accessible medium that sympathizes with people who have spent their lives suffering from depression (myself included), identifies with their interior plights, quietly observes their very real struggles, illustrates so vividly the fact that non-depressed people cannot understand what we go through, and even demonizes the opportunistic pharmaceutical industry for haphazardly tossing pills and miracle cures our way; there’s even a commentary on the misleading, cheery ads with supposed formerly-depressed people prancing along beaches with their laughably photogenic families.

Not quite.  Side Effects is that film insofar as Reservoir Dogs is a film about Madonna.  Soderbergh pulls the curtain away and reveals the fact that he really wanted to make a neo-noir movie about a Holmes-like detective trying to investigate his way out of a legal and marital nightmare.  After an extended bout of gumshoeing, Banks deduces that Emily faked the entire thing in an elaborate scheme that also involved her ex-therapist, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), as the two wished only to make exorbitant sums of money through stock market manipulation (there’s a fortune to be made if a popular drug kills a patient).  Through one thing and another, Banks puts into motion his own dastardly scheme for revenge and freedom, winning his life back in a painfully obvious post-test-audiences ending that left me with my palm glued to my forehead.

So if you watch the second half, you get the opposite of what I thought the film would be (and of some importance, what the film was marketed as).  I do not like the implication that depressed people are “faking” their symptoms or exploiting the sympathy of others.  Thinking about it makes my third eye hurt.  In fact, any attempt at critical analysis causes this film’s internal logic (or lack thereof) to collapse: How was it so easy for Emily to murder her actual husband of five years?  Why would Emily act drugged when being injected with saline solution if she knew it would tip her hand?  Why would Dierdre think John would take photos of a patient in her underwear and then send them to their shared home?  Why wouldn’t she recognize the handwriting on the envelope as someone else’s?  How would rigging the stock market by murdering someone and hoping for victory in a very specific type of lawsuit seem like a viable get-rich-quick scheme to any thinking person?  Martin (Emily’s husband) knew about her depressions, as if these episodes were something they’d been dealing with together ever since they’d met. If she wasn’t really depressed, we’re supposed to think she’s been maintaining this ruse for five years?  Why is Martin seen as a simple murder victim and tragic figure; why does the film forget that he is a real criminal?  Why do both of the film’s principle female characters turn out to be the evil schemers?  Other than the titillation it provides male viewers with, why did Emily need to initiate a romantic relationship with Siebert in order to make the scheme work (it paints gay people in an unnecessarily negative light)?  Why is Banks, the doctor who admitted to prescribing ineffectual meds to a desperate person (and thus taking advantage of a patient, whether or not she turned out to be scamming him) so easily exonerated by the narrative?  Why is it seen as “okay” for him to get revenge by sending Emily away and prescribing her with additional medication she doesn’t need, essentially turning her into a real zombie and severely abusing his oath as a doctor?  How is Emily legally sent back to the ward after being declared legally “not crazy” barely a day before (any basic scrutiny of the legal system, which I’d expect from filmmakers who spend a third of their movie in a court, would tell you that this can’t happen)?  The film’s non-logic sends one’s head into enough of a cyclone to make even my dumbest question – Why do Emily and Siebert basically bite each other’s lips instead of actually kissing? – seem full of critical merit.

Mara’s performance and the score by Thomas Newman keep the film afloat, and the latter will remind some of Hitchcock’s strategic use of tension-building music (though I am reluctant to compare every single thriller featuring atmospheric music to a Hitchcock movie; this film doesn’t hold any other resemblance).  Jude Law is convincing as usual, and despite its ludicrous pitfalls and dialed-in ending, the film manages to keep interest.  Hopefully, enough good films about mental illness are floating around as to render this film’s potentially-dangerous underlying message innocuous.

You have to admit one thing, though: killer or not, you still want to root for Emily when she’s sitting in front of an abusive male doctor who angrily dismisses her and prescribes harmful medications – both times.

Side Effects (2013); written by Scott Z. Burns; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum.

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