Anticipation for Park Chan-wook's American debut of "Stoker" has been so intense in the last year that it seems impossible it can stand up to every expectation. Online clips make it look like a stylistic masterpiece, if a nod toward Hitchcock in more places than one. But with its official public debut at the Sundance Film Festival tomorrow, would a film that seems impossible to categorize be a runaway success based strictly on style over substance?
I had the fortune of reading the first-draft script of "Stoker" last year, and I can tell you that the plot has much more substance than the preview tells you. In fact, I'll dare say that it gives a profoundly deep perspective on an unsaid issue than any other film covering the same issue has attempted recently. The timing is perfect on the film considering the mentioned issue is one of the most pertinent and complex problems in America right now.
All of that in a horror film, you might say? It's not just a horror film, which could potentially hurt it in picking up distributorship. Even stars Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman have had challenges in interviews trying to describe exactly what the film is, even if we know it's a slight sliver of a tribute to "Shadow of a Doubt."
Therein may be a problem in some of the films at Sundance that try to color outside the lines. While just about every film screened there this year seem abstractly worth seeing, the reality is that many of them will cancel one another out because they're abjectly too creative and insightful for mainstream appeal. At least "Stoker" has the advantage of already being known before it screens, which can't be said for 75% of the other films at the festival.
While "Stoker" does deal in an important issue, it may be too opaque with the director's stylization and other plot points. If you go by last year's major winner at Sundance ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"), you can tap into some clues as to what may hit it off with audiences. This year, another film is screening at Sundance that's made in the same spirit as "Beasts" and in attention to the worst levels of endemic poverty.
"The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" has two kids that are left on their own by a deadbeat mother in the Brooklyn projects where the kids learn to essentially, well, "beast it." If you saw "Beasts" above, then you understand the power of that last statement in the act of staying tough for survival. This time, though, "The Inevitable Defeat" shows it through two young boys rather than the more compelling story of little girl Hushpuppy in "Beasts."
Because the latter was such an eye-opener in carving a unique reality for those living their entire lives in certain environments, expect "Inevitable Defeat" to do the same in a city environment. The biggest difference is that the film's cast has more familiar faces as in Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Jordin Sparks. Regardless, expect young unknown Skylan Brooks (playing Mister) to be a breakout star as parallel to what happened to Quvenzhane Wallis.
The above film's attention may be a warning to future Sundance entrants that any issue in a film needs upfront and center attention and not obscured into a potpourri of genres. Nevertheless, "Stoker" is going to remind us indie film fans why movie art houses are called art houses.