Film Review of “Stoker” + A Contemporary Retrospective of Mental Illness in Cinema

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a great suspense film that blends horror elements and mystery themes perfectly, and I feel that “Stoker” has provided me with such a thrilling example of that balance.

Stoker 01

With a brilliantly tight screenplay written by “Prison Break” alum, Wentworth Miller, and masterfully directed by acclaimed South Korean director, Park Chan-Wook, “Stoker” explores the archetypical dysfunctional family and gives it a compelling twist that is both unnerving and fascinating to watch. Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode are the headliners that propel this disconcerting mindfuck of a film that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud.

Wasikowska retains her distinct svelte features but sheds her naïve ingénue aura previously seen in the Disney mega-hit, “Alice In Wonderland”. As the odd and angsty teenager India Stoker, she channels the disturbed iciness of Wednesday Addams as she tries to deal with the unfortunate death of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney) while pushing away her uptight and emotionally unstable mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). But with the abrupt appearance of a India’s father’s younger brother and previously unheard-of uncle named Charlie (Matthew Goode), their lives are about to descend into Norman Bates levels of intense psychological and sexual warfare between the lead characters.

Stoker 03

With the stealthy direction of Chan-Wook, the film echoes strongly of the best Asian horror films due to its precise cinematography of obscure angles, subject framing, detailed editing, and extended periods of silence in key scenes that just crawls under your skin with a fierce vengeance. Given that he has helmed his famously acclaimed “Vengeance Trilogy”—including the highly maniacal masterpiece, “Oldboy”—Chan-Wook’s foray into English-language filmmaking is surely secured and greatly welcomed. The pacing might be considered too slothful for some people, but the deliberate slow nature of the storyline adds to the menacing aura of the movie, particularly if you have to sit through a nonstop slew of WTF-type scenes such as a mildly incestuous piano duet and a climactic flashback moment that will make you think twice about evil toddlers playing in the sandbox.

The dynamics between India, Charlie, and Evelyn are simply remarkable that you just know at the very onset that something is wrong with this family the minute you see them all together onscreen. Wasikowska as India simply shines with a piercing glow of a stiletto knife as she drifts through the movie with surprising twists and turns, while Goode as her psychopathic Uncle Charlie is simply the kind of enigmatic and handsome basket case that you can’t help but be drawn to his alluring charms until you end up six feet under. Kidman as Evelyn plays up to her untouchable ice-queen looks and gives a crackling take on a Stepford-Wife-turned-sexually-deprived-and-grieving-widow that is both tragic and astonishing to watch.

Stoker 04

Touching on strong and discomfiting themes such as mental disorder, homicide, and borderline incest that is so erotically charged, this movie would probably fail at the hands of lesser creative talents. But because of a compellingly written script, faultless direction, and amazing performances from the lead cast, “Stoker” gives audiences all the chills and thrills they would need without succumbing to a mindless bloodbath from a run-of-the-mill horror film.

With the release of “Stoker” once again giving me a breathtaking example of crazed characters in film, here’s a retrospective commentary of my favorite performances of actors and actresses playing mentally ill characters in contemporary cinema.

Patrick Bateman

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman

American Psycho

While Bale was as equally brilliant in his other fucked-up role as the infamous skeletal insomniac in “The Machinist”, it is his sexy but dangerous portrayal of corporate yuppie, Patrick Bateman, which oozes all the right crazy vibes one expects in a slick slasher film. Conceived by novelist Bret Easton Ellis as a vain and privileged businessman with a vicious penchant for homicide, Bale as Bateman puts on a vivid show of disaffected coolness in public and then switching to a diabolical exterior in private. He is the ridiculously handsome and fashionable counterpart to other notable killers in cinema like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Leatherface—clad in sleek designer suits as he rips apart his victims with unbridled glee. But as the film progresses and the startling realization that all of his gruesomely heinous acts of murder were all in his head, you will probably end up empathizing with Patrick given that we all have imagined killing off certain people we dislike in our life. Whether he is hacking up pretentious colleagues with an axe or violently pursuing prostitutes while brandishing a chainsaw all bloody and gloriously naked, Bale’s command of playing disturbed characters is a testament to great acting that many others should consider him as a textbook example.

 Nina Sayers

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers

Black Swan

In Darren Aronofsky’s dark yet mesmerizing depiction of the ballet world, Natalie Portman brings a bravura performance as the perfectionist dancer, Nina Sayers, driven into a frenzied madness caused by her unexpected casting of playing both the white and virginal Swan Queen and her evil yet sensual twin, the Black Swan. With her gamine figure and fractured innocence, Portman as Sayers is the very definition of obsessive-compulsive disorder that she veers off into a beautifully choreographed downward spiral, aided by the pressures of an overbearing stage mother, a sexually provocative dance director, a demoted bitter colleague in her dance company, and a freewheeling newcomer ballerina. Nina’s hallucinations gradually intensifies as the movie plays on—from witnessing doppelgangers of herself in dark alleyways to plucking black down feathers from her mutated skin—and we get to see a stunning series of physically and sexually destructive set pieces that moments such as the now-famous lesbian sex scene and the onstage swan transformation are just mindblowing in all their gorgeous glory. Portman secured her Best Actress Oscar statuette with this character, and has effectively proven that even waifish actresses like her can deliver a performance that requires losing your sanity just like the other Hollywood greats.

 Hannibal Lecter

Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter

The Silence Of The Lambs” / ”Hannibal

Anthony Hopkins has immortalized himself in Hollywood pop culture with his insane turn as the enigmatic yet cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In many ways, he is a brilliant psychologist and a perfectly cultured and articulate person save for one fatal flaw—his insatiable taste and hunger for human flesh. Serving as both antagonist and antihero against FBI agent, Clarice Starling, Hopkins as Dr. Lecter instantly grabs your attention as the camera frames an eerie close-up shot of his face with eyes that glimmer with undiluted madness. In two films, Hopkins has commandeered the character with a lethal precision that you’d be wise not to book an appointment with this fucked-up shrink if he was real. His finest show of cannibalism was seen in his thrilling escape from confinement in “The Silence Of The Lambs” and his calm yet surgical dissection and consumption of a living victim’s brain in the sequel, “Hannibal”. Given this show of poised insanity, Hopkins’s pin-sharp depiction of Dr. Hannibal Lecter will sure to have a starring role in your worst nightmares.

Justine

Kirsten Dunst as Justine

Melancholia

On the calmer side of the mental illness spectrum is the ethereal Kirsten Dunst with a career-defining turn as the depressed bride, Justine, in controversial auteur Lars Von Trier’s apocalyptic drama. In what is perhaps her finest performance to date, Dunst fully embodies the gloomy lethargy and incurable despair of a woman suffering from clinical depression. There rings a chilling truth to her acting in this movie given that Dunst had a much-publicized stint in rehab because of depression. Dunst’s personal experience with this mental illness allowed her to portray Justine with a fierce sincerity that pushes through every fixed smile or crushing breakdown. Where Dunst killed herself due to parental oppression and sexual repression in the sultry and languid “The Virgin Suicides”, she finds an unlikely strength to her unsettling gloominess that burdens her more emotional family members. Justine alone remains the calm and collected one in the face of an inevitable disaster as a rogue planet the size of Jupiter is on a collision course with Earth. Dunst nabbed the Prix D’interprétation Féminine award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for her truly melancholic performance that combines both a subtle beauty and emotional depth that could easily drown even the happiest of people when they watch this fever dream of a film.

The Narrator

Edward Norton as The Narrator

Fight Club

Edward Norton gives a ripping yarn of a performance with his role in the cult film classic, “Fight Club”. Though we never know his name or identity, Norton packs a mean punch as he leads this testosterone-fueled flick together with a buffed-up Brad Pitt as co-founders of the titular underground organization that bears the movie’s name. As the nameless Narrator of this mindbending story of violence and anti-consumerism, Norton displays a controlled grasp of his character before he loosens the reins and reveals to the audience just how troubled his persona is. Author Chuck Palahniuk envisioned a character that is at once unified and divergent with two distinct personalities ultimately revealed at the climax of the film. Norton’s unnamed protagonist goes through great lengths to unravel this crucial plot point that it is a joy to watch him battle with his dark yet charismatic alter ego of Tyler Durden. As the nameless man of the movie, Norton would barely harm a fly; but as he slips into the chaos-loving persona of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, he has the dictatorial and nihilistic power to command legions of men who can bring down corporations with terrorist attacks and incite a disturbed vision of anarchy that has likely served as inspiration for other fictional film villains intent on reimagining modern society into mayhem and ruin.

She

Charlotte Gainsbourg as She

Antichrist

Lars Von Trier has an uncanny knack for bringing out the best out of his female leads in his debate-worthy films, even if it means subjecting them to psychologically damaging conditions like the one Charlotte Gainsbourg went through in the arthouse indie horror film, “Antichrist”. Garnering her a Best Actress Cannes award just like fellow Von Trier alums, Kirsten Dunst and Björk (for “Dancer In The Dark”), Gainsbourg as the unnamed female lead of this trippy fright-fest of Satanic proportions makes a decisive portrayal of a woman burdened by intense grief at the loss of her baby boy. With an equally impressive performance by Willem DaFoe as her intrepid psychiatrist husband, Gainsbourg explodes onscreen with an unbridled tenacity that shows in her eyes brimming with fear as she confronts the menacing environment of a forest called Eden that contains all of her innermost fears. These fears eventually take hold of her as she brutally punishes her nameless husband with near-unwatchable torture scenes and a graphic display of extreme sexuality that pushes the limits of sanity. Polarizing as it may be to watch her cut off her own clitoris and interpreted by many as a blatant statement of misogyny, the sylphlike French actress provides a no-holds-barred performance to her characterization of a woman whose mind literally snaps when dealt with a situation that breaks down all traces of rational thinking.

Edward (Teddy) Daniels

Leonardo DiCaprio as EdwardTeddyDaniels

Shutter Island

Leonardo DiCaprio is no stranger to playing characters with severe mental disorders, as evidenced in films like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and “The Aviator”. This time around, DiCaprio makes good with his veteran experience in the arena of craziness as Edward “Teddy” Daniels, a US Marshal sent to investigate the mysterious happenings on a psychiatric institution located on the titular island of the film’s name. Strong influences of Agatha Christie and Stephen King permeate the movie as Teddy Daniels relentlessly pursues all possible leads to solve the mystery on Shutter Island. And like his other brain-addled contemporaries on this list, DiCaprio finds that his chase leads to that surprising revelation that ultimately forces his character to reassess all the events of the film as one big pretend act that forces him to see through his mental delusions. Though the procedure executed by the psychiatrists of the mental hospital might be overtly grandiose in scale and production, it nevertheless provides a clear perspective for DiCaprio’s character to see how unstable his mind has become after the gruesome events he orchestrated that led to the death of his beloved wife. With a full-bodied capacity to his acting skills, DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels joins the esteemed ranks of Hollywood’s loony bin of crazed fictional characters.

Lisbeth Salander

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

When you have lived a severely traumatic childhood, don’t expect to come out of it all sunshine and daisies because Lisbeth Salander is anything but what perfect little girls are supposedly made up of. The character was the brainchild of the late Swedish author, Stieg Larsson, as the lead female protagonist in his posthumously published work, the Millennium Trilogy. With the Hollywood remake of the first novel helmed by the master of emotionally moody films—a.k.a. David Fincher—we get a fresh interpretation of Lisbeth in the form of Rooney Mara. Committing herself to the role on a physical and mental level, Mara’s metamorphosis to sweet-faced rising star to a pale-faced, punked-out, antisocial computer hacker is the stuff that most actresses of her generation would not even consider taking up. In her take of the eccentric Swedish anti-heroine, Mara lives and breathes a tightly-wound balance of crazed sexuality, ruthless criminal behavior, unsettling personality quirks, and a frighteningly genius intellect that it is hard to believe a character like this would even exist on a fictional level. And yet somehow, it all works. Mara as Salander commands your full attention the second she appears on screen, and given her vindictive streak that she inflicts upon the most poisonous of men, you will know better to not mess around in her presence and just simply let her be the mysterious cloud of awesomeness that she is.

Brandon Sullivan

Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan

Shame

As difficult as it is for some people to believe, there is such a thing as an unhealthy addiction to sex. Just like the hardest of drugs, too much fornication of any form can fuck up your brain. On this note, it is indeed a fortuitous circumstance to see someone like Michael Fassbender inhabit such a lustfully depraved state in Steve McQueen’s unflinching portrait of a man pushed to the extremes of his physical insatiability. Playing a successful advertising executive with a deeply perverted secret, Fassbender gives life to the sexually active but emotionally dead character of Brandon Sullivan. From the opening scenes of the film where we see his well-endowed manhood, the audience immediately picks up on the fact that there is just something wrong with this guy, and not because of the fact that he freely displays his glorious assets in his starkly minimalist apartment. Even in the most innocuous of scenes, Fassbender’s portrayal of Sullivan constantly thinks about sex 24/7 that looking into his mind would probably be a pornographic fantasia that even the most dedicated porn stars would not even dare to step foot in. His awareness and futile struggles to combat his illness is at once heartbreaking and contemptuous, and such a performance is why Fassbender is a hot Hollywood commodity that is sure to fire up the screen.

Virginia Woolf

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf

The Hours

When you are portraying a real-life person dramatized for cinematic purposes, there is a fine line between doing it right and doing it wrong. Fortunately for Nicole Kidman, she did it right with her electrifying version of famous English author, Virginia Woolf. Based on the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham and brought to the silver screen in 2002, Kidman embodies a provocative turn as the mentally troubled Woolf which sees her extreme difficulty in coping with her bipolar disorder and frequent bouts of nervous breakdowns. Living with that kind of mental illness in 1920s England is enough to push anyone’s buttons, and Kidman as Woolf barely survives a day with her condition were it not for the intervention of her beloved husband, Leonard. Her only saving grace is through her talents as a brilliant writer where Virginia slowly pens the genesis of her iconic novel, “Mrs. Dalloway”. But her story has a tragic end, and the film remains faithful to that gut-wrenching truth. To see Kidman fill her pockets with heavy stones and consciously drowning herself in the River Ouse is a powerful image that cannot be erased from memory upon seeing it for the first time. While this is one of the many depictions of the troubled life of Virginia Woolf, it is Nicole Kidman’s Oscar-winning performance that all others should be measured against.

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One thought on “Film Review of “Stoker” + A Contemporary Retrospective of Mental Illness in Cinema

  1. Pingback: From Page to Screen : “Runaway Train” Meets “The Hunger Games” In “Snowpiercer” | Brent Of The Fabulous Wild

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