Featuring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jackie Weaver
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Wentworth Miller
Australian release date: Thursday, 29th August
Verdict: Creepy, clever and stylish, but ultimately insubstantial
When social misfit teenager India (Mia Wasikowska) loses her father in a car accident, her previously unmentioned Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up for the funeral. At the invitation of emotionally unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), Charlie moves into the family home. India finds him sinister and suspects him of ulterior motives, but is charmed by him nevertheless – as is Evelyn. With sexual tension crackling in the air and the shadow of something dark and menacing falling over the household, things turn creepy.
Waaaall! What a mix we have here. A weirdo alienated teen with libido comin’ on strong, the sudden death of her father whom she doted on, a cold mother she doesn’t get on with, an incestuous lust triangle twixt daughter, mother and dead father’s mysterious and previously unknown brother. Freud would be ecstatic…
Then there are the vampire allusions. The name Stoker, obviously. Uncle Charlie’s introduction during his brother’s funeral as a lone figure looking down from higher ground on the mourners at the graveside, all but silhouetted against the grey sky. His uncanny capacity to track down his prey against all logical odds, always arriving ready for evil action with a perfect sense of time and place. His supernaturally potent sexual allure: first he charms the nickers off Nicole with bro/hubby barely cold in his grave, then has India, who hates his guts, panting helplessly with desire as she fantasises about playing a duet with him on piano. But it’s when he whips off his belt and snaps the neck of a boy who is making out with her in the woods that she really gets hot and messy!
But with ne’er a fang or glowing red eye in sight, this is not quite a vampire flick. And while the violence is pretty nasty and edges close to splatter at times, it’s never for laughs – the film is played straight. Adding to the genre categorisation challenge is the visual and directorial style of the piece, which is ostentatiously arty. There is a repetitive image, for instance, of a spider crawling up India’s leg, her crotch being the implied destination. It’s fair dinkum reminiscent of Jane Campion! What’s going on, then, generically? Dracula out of drag meets The Piano? Yikes!
Directorial pyrotechnics abound, aided and abetted by virtuoso camerawork. There are disconcerting angles; arty close-ups and dissolves; visually arresting and often beautiful but confusing fragmented imagery that whiffs of art-for-art’s-sake, yet ultimately achieves redemption by slotting impressively and retrospectively into place as the story develops. This is perfectly compatible with the carefully but oddly structured narrative, which features time shifts and alternative depictions of events that keep you guessing as to which are fantasy and which not.
Images, not words, are used quite ingeniously to connect India with Uncle Charlie genetically. If I elaborate it will undermine the dramatic effect for those who see the film, so that’s all ya get, awright? Just sayin’, it’s good to encounter intrinsically filmic devices being used in movie storytelling. Doesn’t happen enough.
While the narrative and visuals work like a jigsaw – the pieces might seem confusing, but combine to cohere in the end – there’s a self-conscious cleverness about it all that veers close to smugness.
The actors do OK. I’ve gotta confess, I have an aversion to Matthew Goode. I’m always aware that he’s acting. But that works for him here, as a character pretending to be other than he is. Mia Wasikowska is as compelling as ever, hitting a slightly melodramatic tone that suits the piece. Kidman is a bit wooden, but in fairness doesn’t have a lot to work with.
In the end, the whole is less than the sum. Lotsa style, not much substance. The parting message that evil is genetic and there ain’t nothin’ much to be done about it is fair enough in the context of a flick like this, but doesn’t add up to much. The same could be said of the film itself, for all its cinematic panache.
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