Smile Politely

Smokin’ visual crack

I’m not gonna lie; I’m kind of a whore for good art direction, so when I saw the first images from the trailer for Chan-wook Park’s Stoker, a mesmerizing and beautiful homage to Alfred Hitchcock, I was sold at the first shot of that odd young woman from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland surrounded by a collection of variously sized, but otherwise identical saddle shoes. I mean come on, how could I not want to see this film after that arresting and surprisingly creepy image? I wanted to see it so desperately that I ventured up twice to Chicago. The first trip I was thwarted by a faulty theater schedule, but the second was a lovely surprise; I thought the film was long gone, only to find it appear in my iPhone movie-goers app! After a moment of dancing with joy in the train’s spacious lavatory, I ran from it, bags in hand, and hailed a cab to the Landmark Cinema to catch a glimpse of this amazing film. I was not disappointed: The creepy images abound. A spider crawls menacingly on a saddle shoe; a spray of blood dots a field of wild flowers; Matthew Goode doesn’t blink … EVER! Yeppers, it’s a creepy visual crack-fest and I was only too happy to smoke it.

In the first moments of the film, I did almost strangle a hipster who sauntered in late and stood in front of me while she unloaded her backpack, her soda, her popcorn, and lazily took off her coat, obscuring a key image from the first three minutes of the film as she lackadaisically eased into her seat. Strangling hipsters is quite in keeping with the spirit of this film, so I guess that would have been cool, but thank God I didn’t, because I now get to see another screening courtesy of Champaign’s Art Theater Co-op’s Midnight shows!

For those who haven’t seen or heard of this delightfully dark and stylized ode to familial mayhem, suffice it to say young India Stoker, played by the otherworldly, but still accessible Mia Wasikowska, has just lost her father in an accident and is left to fend for herself with her emotionally frozen, but sexually percolating mother, Evelyn, played by the Hitchcockian-blonde ice princess of 2013, Nicole Kidman, in a surprisingly low-key and rage-fueled performance, a virtual meditation on the dubious joys of motherhood. Cut to India’s long-lost and creepily attentive Uncle Charles — played by the continuously vacuous and oddly seductive Matthew Goode — entering his brother’s funeral, and you have one rollercoaster ride of “a sociopath’s guide to mayhem.” The performances, including Mr. Goode’s, are pitch-perfect. Saying more than this about the plot would give too much away. Hell, I can’t even explain the saddle shoes, but when the film does, prepare for gooseflesh, boys and girls! God, this film is good!

With a stoically silent narrative provided by screenwriter Wentworth Miller … (Yep, that’s the closely-cropped and tattooed muscle boy from Fox TV’s now-defunct series, Prison Break ... He’s the one who got into a wee bit of a gay scandal when the paparazzi photographed him having coffee with and sauntering in the park with and sitting in a car with former Grey’s Anatomy out star, T. R. Knight and later, out actor Luke MacFarlane. So … the press went crazy for a few weeks about him being both a slab of sexy female fantasy meat on TV and maybe G-A-Y. The gays do like their Starbucks … and their parks … and their cars. His series was cancelled shortly after the “scandal” broke … See what knowledge you gain from a Smile Politely review … Am I still writing parenthetically? … Anyway, Wentworth Miller! Who knew he could write?)

Miller has written a script that is light on text and heavy on visual imagery and impending anarchy and the results are creepier than shit! The film’s use of minimal verbiage and beautifully meticulous imagery reminded me of the Hitchcock film Marnie and last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Shame. All share a sort of voyeuristic fascination with the moments when we are caught expressing emotions, the moments we think no one is watching and we drop the mask. It’s disquieting and mesmerizing, as are the deadened and subtle performances of the cast under Park’s skillful direction. This is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen, and God bless the Art for bringing it to us! Go see a showing of this great movie, kids. (Here’s the trailer.) You won’t be disappointed!     

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