Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Stoker vs. Side Effects, two murder mysteries with twisted, paternalistic romances between pretty young things and men who turn them into violent killers.
Both trailers are cruelly unforthcoming about what actually happens in their respective films. Stoker sees Mia Wasikowska play India, the unfortunate daughter of a not-very-maternal Nicole Kidman (her opening lines seem like something more concerning than tough love). India's father dies of unknown causes, and her suspiciously good-looking uncle (Matthew Goode) quickly takes his place—that is, with a lot of added sexual tension that we can only hope wasn't there before. The bizarre familial love triangle this spawns is hardly the weirdest part of it all: it's the number of people they end up killing in between shots of their creepily intense eye contact. The endgame is unclear: when Kidman asks Goode about his plans for her daughter, he taunts, "You have no idea." At least someone else is as in the dark as us.
Side Effects is even more intriguing in its obscurity: we're never even told who gets killed! We just know it was probably Rooney Mara who did it. Again, the details are not clear, but she seems to be a psychologically fragile young woman in a relationship with the sturdy, stoic Channing Tatum, and also most likely her couples therapist (Jude Law). Someone dies, someone calls the cops, and everyone gets embroiled in a high-profile scandal. It's less surreal than Stoker, and while realism makes the murder all the more chilling, it also seems limiting: whereas we're not sure what mix of meds and personal manipulation led Mara to her breaking point in Side Effects, we truly have no idea where Wasikowska will end up in Stoker, thanks to its supernatural tinge.
Wasikowska is no stranger to family drama (The Kids Are All Right) or sinister surrealism (Alice in Wonderland), so Stoker seems like a natural fit. She doesn't speak much in the trailer, but she's incredibly expressive. Somehow she keeps the brooding, mansion-dwelling, Wednesday Addams act from getting stale—maybe it's because she finally snaps out of it, perks up, and picks up a gun. Her creeping hints at a smile towards the end are masterful, and leave us wanting more.
Mara talks a lot more in her trailer's two minutes, but we don't feel like we know her quite as well by the end of it. She seems like the unhappy pawn of a lot of other players (and prescriptions). Her lines are pretty generic; we actually mistook her intro for a Lana Del Rey soundtrack. She's definitely an interesting element in the story—and probably the most integral—but we see her more as a central plot point than a personality in her own right. We know she's got an impressive résumé, but this role doesn't let her show it.
Each leading lady has a lithe, blue-eyed forbidden lover, and Matthew Goode looks just right for the part. He's thoroughly convincing as an ambitious, murderous charlatan—his lethally smooth moves and wide grin compensate for whatever he lacks as a physical threat. He's actually strangely likeable, to the extent that we find ourselves cheering for his sick little duo with his niece by the end.
Jude Law's character is sympathetic on much simpler terms. He has no obviously harmful intentions, and comes off more as a confused and maybe misguided lover than a schemer armed with a prescription pad. He's genuinely caught off guard by Mara at several points in the trailer, which is actually a refreshing alternative to the romantic dynamic in Stoker: the pet project he kept on pills this whole time has finally gotten out of his control, and we see him squirm at the thought of it. We don't trust him completely; he was obviously up to something funny with Mara before her big mental break, but that only adds interest to a story in which no one seems entirely innocent. It's how shaken he is by all the aftermath that will make for a complex character arc, and we know Law can do it justice—it's a little more interesting that Goode's wholly evil shtick.
Advantage: Side Effects
Both directors are well within their wheelhouse here. Stoker's Chan-wook Park has a long list of otherworldly, cult-classic titles to his name (the most notable being Oldboy, which he also penned). We think Stoker fits that description, thought its cult-classic status is yet to be determined. Most of his other films have the same violent overtones, but they also feature much higher-production fight scenes, so we're interested to see how his style translates to Stoker's backwoods antics.
Side Effects' Steven Soderbergh knows very well how to handle a huge cast, if Ocean's Eleven through Thirteen are any proof. Those ensembles have all been just as impressive as this one, and they almost exclusively resolve around a hush-hush, high-stakes scandal (last year's Contagion being the most recent example), so we find it hard to believe that he can do anything but succeed with this variation on the theme. It's certainly a safer bet than Park's experimentation in Stoker, but the formula might also be a little tired.
Every shot in Stoker's trailer could be a carefully considered still. The color story, the costuming, the almost campy pathetic fallacy: all of these give the trailer that delightfully surreal flavor that make any absurd romance or violence seem possible and totally permissible. It heightens the sense of danger and also allows for a romantic narrative between Wasikowska and Goode that we wouldn't ever have been comfortable with if it seemed too realistic. It's not immoral, it's art!
The mood of Side Effects is decidedly less stylized, but its realism manifests itself in a hazy, almost disorienting way. The washed-out color, Gaussian blur, and rapid cuts all contribute to the sense of intrigue and unreliable perceptions. It's appropriate, but it's just not as engrossing, or simply as beautiful, as Stoker's saturated, hyper-real vision.
Upon closer inspection, these two titles are less similar than they seem. Topically, they have a lot in common—big-name casts, close-quarters violence, manipulative romances, unstable pretty girls—but it's the styling that makes all the difference. Side Effects looks like a deceptively generic iteration of the multi-player murder scandal, while Stoker promises a genuinely frightening, quasi-campy art-house romp.
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