I said these stocking stuffers wouldn’t be themed, and I toyed with calling this one something like “Nasty little black hearts that happen to have Nicole Kidman in them”, but then I realized I should limit my self-serving dumbness to myself sometimes. Just sharing.
2013 saw the “big three” South Korean maestros of pitch-black genre fare emigrate to the United States (Hollywood ever unable to beat em’, and always willing to shill out enough money so they can join em’). Kim Jee-woon went to bat first and struck out commercially (even if his grubby, sprightly little action vehicle for Ahnuld. The Last Stand, was a decent sort in it’s own way, and incomparably directed to say the least). The final hitter, delayed by one year, was Bong Joon-ho, and he knocked it out of the park with a deliriously madcap trip to film school in the rollicking kitsch-fest Snowpiercer.
In between, the bad boy of South Korean cinema went up to bat and generated a curiously slight bit of applause. Park Chan-wook was always the bleakest and most torturous of the three directors, his compatriots preferring sky-high genre fare while he always went the chilly path to the darkest places of our souls. His American debut, Stoker, follows suit, and in retrospect, the little response this film – about incest among the modern bourgeoisie – generated isn’t really a surprise. In fact, it would have been a shock had its reaction been rapturous, or anything other than the deadened, transfixed state it occupies from beginning to end.
Formally, Stoker dances with skill and circles in on perfection like a vulture waiting for the corpses. There are show-offs, surely, such as a moment where strands of hair bleed out into blades of grass, but the real show-stopper is just how chilly Chan-wook makes the whole thing. It’s seductive, don’t get me wrong, but it very much a film about seduction delayed, and abut the repression of female sensuality specifically. Chan-wook’s film about an uncle with a dark past latching onto his middlebrow family, and specifically his weary, alert niece, draws on the clinical black heart of Hitchcock’s early period masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt most explicitly in narrative, dialogue, performance, framing, and just about any way it can, not so much fashioning a remake as a variation on a theme. It’s almost like Chan-wook set out to recreate a classical Hollywood temptress with the tools, and lack of inhibitions, of a modern filmmaker. If Hitch denied his film’s sexual undertones about the nature of innocence and guilt, Chan-wook is more wont to tease.
So the film is a stylistic exercise then, looking to recapture the spirit of an era long gone in the modern world. Befitting a corpse in the making, it emphasizes its own static nature. Even when the camera glides around the characters, it does so with a certain impenetrable distance. The framing is icy and bone-dry, blocking off characters and depicting them in perfect poise, essential for capturing how dry and sterile their lives are. It’s a performative film, a work about characters performing roles that, as a film, mirrors their lives by performing another film from 70 years prior. It’s a neat trick, and an effective one when Chan-wook really gives us those perfect frames he’s known for.
So it’s a little slice of naughty pitch-black fun is it? Well, yes and no. Stoker borders on perfection from a formal perspective, but fun is a different story. The film is so regimented and rigorous in fact that it looses something else: liveliness. Everything, from the boxed angles to the lighting to the note-perfect performances (by Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode) to the steadying thump of the screenplay, they all feel slightly too perfect, slightly too cohesive and well-formed so that there’s no room left for the film to breathe. Catch me on the right day and I might even accuse Chan-wook of being naughty to shock the middlebrows, rather than because he’s really having any fun at all with it. That’s a bit harsh, for Stoker is undeniably a strong, meticulous, sonorous voice to appreciate and to sit with. It’s just not quite as easy to bask in it, the whole thing never as subversive, or fun, as it thinks it is. And Chan-wook not having fun, well that’s not a world I’d ever like to live in.
“This here is the South. You eat em with your hand”, one character utters in The Paperboy, and it sure does. Lee Daniel’s third film, a steamy, swampy Southern stew that purrs like a pitch-black, downright libidinous variation on The Help, dives in head first, sloppily munching on cartilage and forgoing any civilized utensils for the raw, lustful pleasure of its own hands. It wants to feel the flesh and the bone and doesn’t give one damn care for a second whether you like it or not.
Daniels is a strange filmmaker, a would-be prestige doctor who delights instead in Southern-fried exploitation and sweaty formalism. He’s a careful filmmaker with a sense of himself, but he knows the benefit of slopping it on wholesale. His films are filled with little details, for instance a perfectly placed Republican elephant in the background of a garage, or the way a black maid peaks right into the frame at the dysfunction of the white family she tends to. Yet none of these are insisted upon, none of them made the focus of a scene. They are careful bonuses slathered on with a curious mixture of pinpoint precision and unkempt, matted scruffiness.
But bonuses for what? The story, involving a pair of newspaperman (Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo) on the trail of a murder mystery with the help of McConaughey’s character’s younger brother (Zac Efron), never comes together in the main thrust. They wander around interviewing a man (John Cusack) accused of killing a racist Sheriff, and Efron’s character gets hot and bothered by the suspect’s fiance (Nicole Kidman). Things go on from here, but the central mystery is tepid to the core. The thing about the film, if it matters, is that the story doesn’t work a lick.
But The Paperboy has such a high fever and is so committed to its melodramatic exploitation barbecue it attains a certain delusional charisma that serenades and seduces in spite of its hairy formlessness. Daniels uses all manner of technique, from grainy cinematography to insert shots to crash zooms to woozy camerawork, to serve mood right down our throats, and the sincerity of the film, its complete refusal to go for “irony” in any capacity, is a cool drink of water on a hot summer’s day.
Texture is a strange word to use for this sort of production, but if the main narrative fails, the sub-blaxploitation vibe of certain elements actually comes away with a curiously well-informed understanding of race relations. The film’s best character, a maid played with snark and icy fire by R & B singer Macy Gray, narrates with clinical detachment and has a blast exploring her workaday relationship to her white employers (mocking the idea that we would expect her to care enough to emote or fully pay attention to a bunch of white people who show her no respect). The way the film’s whites treat her, as well as Oyelowo’s passionate, commanding self-starter in a world where whites would rather he be quiet and subservient, is carefully delineated and honest. The whites sway between begrudging acceptance, mockery, and genial patronizing, feigning niceness in a way that reveals their inner discomfort and smug self-superiority.
Yet this sort of treatment, doctoring up a sleepy story with weird, off-kilter touches and hidden depths that don’t so much plague the corners as descend to the hard-boiled core of his material, is the Daniels’ aesthetic (or at least, it was until The Butler). Even Precious, a film that received widespread popular acclaim on the back of its bravura acting and anxiously racist poverty-porn, slides back to reveal a screwy high-heat broil of bananas filmmaking that ought to move it about as squarely away from anything resembling Oscarbait as humanly possible. Even that would-be soporific hole of prestige-pic boredom was enlivened by Daniels’ general disregard for good taste (admittedly, that particular film was also damaged immeasurably by this same tendency), and it helps mightily with The Paperboy, damn near making the film. Or, as some might say, it does make it. It is certainly not for everyone, or even most people, but for those who “get it”, you’ll never lose it.