Stoker is, in certain broad strokes, a macabre family drama, but the Stoker of the title is without question India Stoker, and that is why I own this movie. It’s gorgeous, rich with stunning and lightly strange production values, but the movie is not just an exercise in formalism. This is India’s story. The visuals are telling her narrative. She is the heart of the picture and the plot, the supporting characters deliberately kept just that: supporting. And a movie that stays with a girl the whole way through, and not an easily palatable girl at that, is honestly still a refreshing product from today’s film industry.

India is so central to Stoker that her heightened, layered perception of the world is what crafts the texture of the movie itself. The editing flickers like thoughts in places, bleeding across time and space, like when India tips a hanging lamp in the basement to swing across her path, and the beam of light is thrown on the faces of her mother and uncle above in the kitchen just moments before. We see and hear the way India does, and India, bless her, is morbid as hell. She seems to turn the surreal circumstances of her life into her own weird violent fairytale, and so the movie is that too. When we are suddenly given a date partway into the run time, it’s almost bewildering, loose as we were in the stylishly timeless storybook reality of the Stoker property. Following India to high school in the next scene feels almost like the dull, workaday cruelties of the world are intruding on us — how India feels, of course.

Because India, cool as she is toward others, performing emotion for them when necessary but hardly ever voluntarily, feels things profoundly. Sensation is one of the offerings of the world, and she takes it. And this blooms into another refreshingly unusual feature of this murdery Bildungsroman: India’s very individualistic sort of erotic awakening, unabashedly about her own self-discovery, where a partner is rather incidental, even indirect. Again, the story is about her. Though not without influences — India is as hyper-aware of how she is shaped against her fascinating, fucked up family as she is the delicate spider crawling up the inside of her leg.

“Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow,” she tells us in the opening scene, “I’m not formed by things that are of myself alone.” But still: “This is me.” At the end we are returned to that moment, and now know just what she means.


Some interesting things about the production of Stoker:

A sound mixer friend of mine happened to see the raw footage coming in from Tennessee, and was amazed at how vivid the colors were in-film, before the color correctors ever got their hands on it. Chung-Hoon Chung  and Chan-Wook Park truly make an incredible pair.

The score is by Clint Mansell, loved for his soundtracks for Moon and Black Swan, but the piano pieces played by the characters were composed by, get this: Philip Glass.

Curiously, the screenplay was written by actor Wentworth Miller (yep, that guy from Prison Break), who had originally passed the script under a pen name and didn’t even play any of the parts himself. I now deeply want him to collaborate with Bryan Fuller and/or Don Mancini on something, as they seem to share an “aesthetically inclined gay guy really interested in sensitive yet shocking horror stories” sensibility.

Speaking of Bryan Fuller, there must have been something in the water a few years ago, because the India Stoker/Abigail Hobbs parallels run the absolute gamut. I won’t list them all (there are so many!) due to spoilers, but if you’ve seen both, WOW right?

The Talented Mr. Ripley

I hadn’t realized this at first, but I think a lot of the movies I’ve been watching since starting this blog-journal could be grouped in pairs. So maybe we’re in a Book Adaptations section here, following Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby with Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I really like The Talented Mr. Ripley, the movie and the novel both, and though I think that they are more different from each other than the Gatsby’s are, I’m glad about it. The Ripley movie managed to rescue itself from something that would not have “needed” fixing in 1955, and what Minghella did with his adaptation was actually pretty dang progressive for 1999.

To talk about this though, I’m going to have to reveal some central plot points at the end of the movie, so unlike the rest of my write-ups this one is NOT spoiler-free, sorry sorry!

Ok, so for those of you still here, let’s talk about the Patricia Highsmith novel a bit. What is so captivating about The Talented Mr. Ripley The Book, is probably how coolly straightforward it is in tone. The book trades on the disparity between that tone and its subject matter: a protagonist who is the human embodiment of the @wolfpupy Tweet: “have to stop saying ‘how am i going to kill my way out of this one’ every time there is trouble going on, or at least not out loud.” Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is deeply chilling, but he’s also sensitive and vulnerable enough to illicit a weird sympathy. Actually, maybe the trait that most aligns us with him is that Ripley is talented. We like watching cleverness, so when we catch ourselves rooting for him, appalled at ourselves, maybe what we’re actually hoping for is just that the plan works. We shouldn’t hope that though, because the plan is horrific. It’s a complicated complicity. Anyone who has watched Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal will recognize this feeling, and also get why this story (set in Italy, no less) was one of Fuller’s touchstones for the third season of that show.

Now, the movie still wraps you up in that uneasy investment Tom Ripley’s deadly deceits, but without the cool, removed narration of the novel, this Ripley becomes a different sort of monster. His yearning is painfully visible in film-form, and it is most directed, as it is in the book too, at Dickie Greenleaf. Highsmith, a queer woman who wrote the recently adapted Carol under a pen name, is neither explicit nor exactly subtle about Tom’s desire, but there’s a reason why she got away with that: Tom Ripley is bad. Tom Ripley is a textbook Gay Villain, his love for men tied up in his amorality. There is something wrong with Tom, and his queerness is part of it, and it will lead to nowhere good.

But what flew for a mass audience in the 1950s is, of course, very uncomfortable for audiences today! And for the first half of the movie, it honestly looks pretty bad. Until, taking a left turn from the novel, the movie introduces Peter, and the story changes beautifully.

Peter Smith-Kingsley exists in the book, but briefly, and not like he does here. Because in the movie, Peter is gay, and Peter is good. He is kind and caring, well-adjusted, happy. And most importantly, it is Peter who offers Tom a way out. Directly, with none of that midcentury ambiguity, we are shown that Tom Ripley could be rescued through the love of a good man. Loving men is no longer monstrous, but what can save him. “Tom has nightmares. That’s not a good thing,” Peter tells him gently, “Tom has someone to love him. That is a good thing.” And so the movie’s new thesis statement reveals itself — but it’s too late. Tom has gone from being a representation of something, to being one specific, terribly broken individual, and thinking he has no choice, he destroys this chance at love and happiness. It’s heartbreaking, one of the most devastating scenes I’ve ever watched, and in true Ripley fashion, still chilling.

The Great Gatsby

Apropos of nothing, I recently woke up with the idea that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby might just be a dead set masterpiece. So I picked up a copy of the book, which has been the easiest thing to do ever since, for reasons only fully understood by themselves, the Council On Books In Wartime decided it would be the novel they’d send overseas by the hundred thousand to soldiers in WWII, ensuring that, improbably, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s little known The Great Gatsby would become The Great American Novel. And wouldn’t you know it, it just might be! Because what it actually is is the great American daydream: fabulously indulgent, ironic, biting, somehow gaudy and gauzy at once, hilarious, inadvertent, morbid, and hiding at its core an embarrassing sentimentality, which it will try to drown in champagne and pools as soon as you’ve seen it. God bless Gatsby. God bless America.

And god bless the 2013 film, because they GOT IT.

The first time I’d watched it I wasn’t clear, because I was fairly drunk, which frankly should have been a sign in itself that something was going right. In fact, I’d snuck two Nalgene bottles of mimosas in to the summer matinee showing for myself, a friend, and our old high school English teacher. We had a tremendous time. Rewatching this, it wasn’t until I hit the scene where Nick gets smashed in the apartment Tom keeps for Myrtle in the city that I recalled I originally saw it in 3D. The mere fact that you were able to watch The Great Gatsby in 3D is probably enough to get F. Scott Fitzgerald bought a drink every day in author heaven.

What delights me about this adaptation is that it appears to understand its source material to be the brightly ridiculous thing that it is. I pray that this was purposeful, because it’s such a good embodiment of theme if it is, but the movie has that particular look of cheapness that nonetheless someone spent a lot of money on. That too bright, too glossy fake quality, brought doubly to life with zipping, loopy editing. It’s a fun that seems self-aware, as we watch greedy gin-soaked butterflies dance around a Disneyland magic mansion with nearly negative regard for either realities of physical space or blocking consistency, while verbatim dialogue from the novel trips off everyone’s silver-spoon tongues, lines sometimes almost layered on top of each other like you’re flipping through the pages of the book in your English class.

The flawless anachronistic picks for music (tracks from co-producer Jay Z, ironic masterstroke “A Little Party Don’t Kill Nobody,” Lana Del Rey — who has been serving fucked-up fantasy American Dream realness at such a high grade that you can’t even blame them for mixing in her singing “Young and Beautiful” twice) are about as perfect as the picks for casting. Carey Mulligan appears to be the murmuring child of a shower of gold coins and a dappled fawn. Tobey Maguire is one of our best bemused Everymans, because he never makes the mistake of playing them as if Everymans aren’t deluded nightmares of their own. And truly talented comedic actor Leonardo diCaprio as Jay Gatsby, looking confusingly thinner and younger than he did before or after, is some time-travelly psychological genius for the character trying to beat back into his soft-focused daydream of the past.

Much like the book, there are still a handful of sadly sincere moments, like the more subtly pretty staging and genuinely pretty phrasing of Gatsby realizing “his count of enchanted objects had diminished by one,” but it’s not long before we’re treated to a wind-lashed yacht rescue flashback sequence, complete with such Arrested Development-sounding descriptors as “its captain, alcoholic millionaire Dan Cody.” Even the properly jaw-dropping car accident scene, broken glass glittering the roadway like diamonds, is followed by Gatsby hilariously lurking in the bushes outside Daisy’s house like a creepy house cat in a pale pink suit.

Honestly, I hit a point where I began to wonder if this thing isn’t brilliantly dumb in a similar way to Wet Hot American Summer, and then I heard that title in my head, and couldn’t stop laughing. Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby: actually pretty Great.