Not So Sure the Kids are All Right

by Hope Madden

If you haven’t seen Chan-wook Park’s twisted revenge fantasy Oldboy, do so immediately. I’ll wait.

Amazing, isn’t it? Hell, his whole Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) inspires awe. Wildly inventive, punishing and entertaining, the films mark a director with a talent for subversive action.

For the Korean filmmaker’s English language debut, he turns his attention to a dysfunctional family drama/mystery. But even a softer Park offers surprising punch.

Mia Wasikowska (The Kids are All Right) plays India Stoker, an odd girl, pensive, in a Wednesday Addams kind of way. A car accident kills her father on her 18th birthday, leaving her to contend with her chilly mother (Nicole Kidman, wonderful) and the surprise, lengthy visit from an Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) she never knew she had.

Wasikowska treads the uneven ground of this character quite well. Never entirely sympathetic, her India strikes the necessary chords to keep Park’s twists believable.

Goode’s an underrated performer. His dreamy good looks and big-eyed eagerness belie a particular kind of weirdness perfect for the role.

The film, quite intentionally, plays like a fractured take on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie and all. There’s something weirdly amiss – sinister, even – in this house, and the handsome, attentive uncle is clearly not what he pretends to be.

But Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller have a different tale to tell, one whose lurid details are suggested from the onset with saturated colors, evocative sounds, and the peering camera of Chung-hoon Chung (Park’s regular collaborator). As he slides around corners and crawls along pathways, his camera forever heightens tensions as well as a sense of puzzlement.

Solid performances across the board anchor a story that missteps once in a while. This is the first screenwriting credit for actor Miller (Prison Break), whose efforts were aided by contributions from Erin Cressida Wilson, the pen behind the dark indie flicks Secretary, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, and Chloe.

But it’s Park who makes the film, an effort that could easily have faltered under the weight of style over substance. In his hands, each scene is meticulously crafted – every color, every sound, every glance – to lift the already capable performances and solid script to something better than it should be.

Provocative, slyly funny and a bit twisted (you can expect nothing less from Park), Stoker represents a quietly fascinating image of a twisted family dynamic.

3 1/5 stars (out of 5)

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