Let’s hear it for the eccentric uncles in our life. They make family gatherings so much more bearable, a welcome shot of adrenaline to combat the inevitable dysfunctional behavior on display as the rest of us go through the motions of slapping on a strained smile and pretending we all get along. They see right through their relatives’ charade…especially when they’re mentally unstable sociopaths.
Take Uncle Charlie, the suave, creepy loose cannon propelling Stoker, the feverish, Hitchcockian English-language debut by South Korean maverick Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance). Charles Stoker (A Single Man‘s Matthew Goode) materializes, as if from thin air, at his big brother Richard’s funeral. It seems the elder Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) had an unfortunate car accident on his way back from retrieving Charlie at the loony bin. You can almost hear Park licking his chops from behind the camera in anticipation of all the mayhem about to unfold.
The very existence of an uncle comes as news to India (Mia Wasikowska), the fruit of Richard’s marriage to Evelyn (Nicole Kidman, in full-blast Baby Jane mode). India, you see, is a bit of a weirdo, sullen and morose. She’s the kind of pale-skinned wallflower who tends to lurk behind doorways. When she notices a spider climbing up her leg, she just stares at it. India was Daddy’s girl, and now she’s stuck with this desperate housewife who yearns for a shopping companion more than a daughter. Still, grief has brought them in the spacious confines of their humble abode, an atmospheric Connecticut mansion. That, and their soft-spoken house guest, who shows quite an interest in his brother’s widow. Still, India can’t quite shake the feeling he’s come home for her.
In a series of brief flashbacks, the younger India recalls receiving the same pair of shoes, like clockwork, on her birthday. The yellow ribbon tied around the shoe boxes is Park’s red flag suggesting Uncle Charlie’s prurient intentions, but how far is he willing to go? When India catches Charlie glancing back at her as he makes his moves on Mommie Dearest, she realizes she’s becoming a pawn in a very dangerous chess game. If the disquieting bond that grows between India and Charlie rings a bell, you might be thinking of Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock’s sensational exploration of criminal malfeasance in early 40s small-town America. The name of Cotten’s character? “Uncle Charlie.”
OK, so Wentworth Miller, the hottie from Prison Break making his screenwriting debut here, likes to wear his influences on his sleeve. (We get it, he’s seen Strangers on a Train more than a couple of times.) He’s got an ear for whispered gossip, and he toes the line between lurid thrills and camp with admirable aplomb. He has found in Park a director who relishes the story’s disreputable trappings instead of diluting them in a tasteful veneer.
What prevents Stoker from reaching the heights of the Master of Suspense’s most indelible work is Miller and Park’s strict adherence to Psychosexual Motivations 101. Their characters’ juicy secrets are revealed quite effectively, and the way Miller turns the story into a exploration of female objectification before the obligatory life-and-death climax merits recognition, but even as the filmmakers deliver the B-movie goods with panache, the element of surprise is DOA. India and Charlie are richly layered, but they seem to be stuck playing out the same creaky scenario we’ve seen many times before. Park appears to be aware he’s not reinventing the wheel, though, so he amps up the foreboding and stylistic calisthenics. The result is a pleasingly overwrought dish that’s a variation on a tried and true recipe, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less tasty.
One may argue Stoker is a well executed exercise in style over substance. I was worried another of this weekend’s new releases would topple under the weight of its deliberate format choice. The good news about No, the Chilean Foreign Language Oscar nominee that screened to a sold-out crowd at the Gusman during this year’s Miami International Film Festival – on the day Hugo Chavez died, no less – is that director Pablo Larraín’s deceptively gimmicky decision to shoot with old Sony video cameras turned out to be very inspired. Instead of announcing its “period” street cred, the boxy, unmistakably late-80s look of No serves to immerse viewers even more deeply into the chronicle of ad exec René Saavedra’s outside-the-box, disarmingly upbeat campaign. The product he’s selling? It’s not a soft drink, though he’s made TV spots for those. Nope, what Saavedra (a perfectly cast Gael García Bernal) is trying to sell is freedom, political empowerment to a people who had forgotten the meaning of the term.
The year is 1988. Military dictator Augusto Pinochet knows the world is watching his actions very closely. His response to the international pressure is to hold a referendum. Voters who want him to remain in power will turn the horizontal line under their ballot’s “SÍ” spot into a cross. Dissidents who want him out will do the same under “NO.” Both sides will have 15 minutes a night, for a limited period leading up to the special election, to state their case.
The opposition knows what they have to do: rub TV viewers’ noses on the atrocities committed under Pinochet’s rule. The archival footage and first-person accounts of relatives who still don’t know what became of their “disappeared” loved ones ought to speak for themselves, right? Um, no, counters Saavedra. People don’t want to watch 15 minutes’ worth of taking your medicine, however vital this material might be to their country’s future. And so he starts working on a campaign that will turn Chile’s plight for democracy into idealistic glimpses of jolly, squeaky-clean – and overwhelmingly light-skinned – people extolling the joys of life beyond Pinochet’s iron grip.
To say that Saavedra’s idea is initially greeted with skepticism and outright indignation is an understatement. Larraín also milks the rivalry that arises between Saavedra and his boss, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), who is tapped to assist the “SÍ” campaign. It’s clear the director knows he’s got a corker of a story, the kind of tale that catapults movies one would normally associate with a specialized arthouse setting into wider success. To his credit, he refuses to simplify the complexities of his political yarn for mass consumption, and that has the ironic effect of increasing the prospects of having his movie, the third entry in his unofficial “dictatorship trilogy” following Tony Manero and Post Mortem, find a crossover audience.
The glue holding No together is a very solid screenplay, by Pedro Peirano, which was adapted from Antonio Skármeta’s play. It compensates for a curious lack of urgency with a thoughtful depiction of a nation’s collective psyche. The filmmakers take you step by step through Saavedra’s creative process, how he turns a patently absurd concept into a formidable engine for social change. The character’s personal life – he appears to be separated from his more politically active wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers) and lives with their young son and their maid Carmen (Elsa Poblete), a status-quo advocate – often takes a back seat, but the way Larraín and Peirano alternate between Saavedra’s domestic conflicts and the Herculean task in front of him feels seamless and balanced. A shot late in the movie of René and his son walking along a crowded street is reminiscent of the work of Italian Neorealist Vittorio de Sica in its no-frills beauty.
No isn’t a self-important film that declares its based-on-a-true-story pedigree at every opportunity. On the contrary, Larraín has crafted a lived-in, frequently humorous ode to the seismic power of persuasion through advertising that doesn’t trivialize the events’ significance. And that’s reason enough for even my readers who happen to be allergic to subtitles to say yes to No.
Pablo Larraín’s No begins its exclusive Miami engagement at the Tower Theater (towertheatermiami.com) this Friday. That same day, Stoker opens at Regal Cinemas South Beach and AMC Sunset Place. Both films are also scheduled to screen at the Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale (thegatewaytheatre.com). Make sure to take along the nonconformists in your life.