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Empowered for evil
Chan-Wook Park
Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver
The Setup: 
Creepy uncle invades family after Dad's death.

This is from Chan-Wook Park, who directed Oldboy and the wonderful vampire film Thirst, so both me and my regular movie buddy Howard were eagerly looking forward to it. Plus its got Nicole Kidman and it's Park's first American film, so one is curious to see what he'd do with it. And the result is just as interesting, and unusual, as one might hope for.

We open with some footage of India, played by Mia Wasikowska, walking in some fields, shortly after her eighteenth birthday. She delivers a voice-over about growing up, ending with "to become adult is to become free." It would seem that her father has recently died, and India, who was very close to him, is very upset and bottling a lot of emotion under her scowling, quiet exterior. Mom is a pretty emotional shell, played by Kidman with similar notes to those she displayed in The Paperboy. Onto the scene arrives Dad's brother, Charlie, played by Matthew Goode. He'll be staying with them for a while.

From the first moments one is aware that one is in the hands of an expert director, and soon experiences that comforting feeling of "Okay, so I can relax." The shots are beautifully-composed and flow into each other with a languid musical rhythm, bringing us into India's disturbed, reflective mindset. She overhears two cooks discussing that her father died under mysterious circumstances. She sees Uncle Charlie having a sinister conversation with their housekeeper, who soon after vanishes. We see a spider crawling slowly over her legs. We see pairs of shoes, given to her every year on her birthday, morphing into each other as they get smaller and smaller, into baby shoes. We see her lying on a bedspread that creates intricate patterns across the screen. Not much happens during the first half hour, aside from Charlie moving in and India feeling uncomfortable, but what the film is doing is bringing us into India's state of mind and creating the confused, overheated world of emotion she exists in.

Soon Uncle Charlie is waiting for India after school, wanting to give her a ride home in his convertible, which she refuses. He then follows her school bus, causing the other girls to be excited and giggly, indicating that everyone understands the sexual undertones at play here. We also find that, quiet as India is, the boys at school find her sexually magnetic. At home, Aunt Jen shows up in the form of jacki Weaver from Animal Kingdom, and seems shocked when she learns that Mom and India think Charlie has been in Europe all this time. Aunt Jen really wants to have a private talk with Mom, but Mom makes it clear that she wants no such thing. When Charlie asks which hotel Jen is staying at, she looks terrified and quickly changes her accommodations.

Soon Aunt Jen is finding that she didn't change her accommodations quite enough to escape Charlie's reach. Around that time India finds the corpse of the housekeeper in the family freezer. But she doesn't freak out, or call the police. She just keeps that knowledge to herself, and waits. In here guys are taunting her at school, one whom she doesn't like, and she challenges him. He makes to punch her, but she's ready and jabs a pencil into his hand. This is witnessed by another guy, who likes her and seems more respectful. We have had numerous shots of a spider crawling around, and crawling on India's legs. Around this time, the spider is on her thigh, and quickly runs right up into her crotch.

One night India sees Charlie seducing her mom, and watches from outside as it seems as though they are about to get it on. She goes to a bar where the guy who likes her is just emerging, and he takes her out into the woods. He seems nice and protective, but that soon changes, and he is about to rape her when--here comes Uncle Charlie. He takes his belt off, wraps it around the guy's neck as he's laying atop India, and snaps his neck. They go home, and India masturbates in the shower, having an orgasm as she remembers the moment when they guy's neck snapped.

Well, things don't get nicer from here, I'm afraid, and soon revelations are had and secrets discovered, all of which would be a shame for me to reveal. We do have an important flashback--delivered after a lovely use of CGI in which Mom's long hair is transformed into a field of long grasses--in which we see that when Dad used to take India out hunting, he taught her to wait silently for hours until just the right moment, then make the kill. This adds amusement and suspense for the rest of the film, as we know that, whatever happens, India is just waiting for the right moment. The end comes as a bit of a surprise, and is more gently perverse than anything in the film, as things definitely do not go in the direction one is accustomed to expect, and India, shall we say, does not emerge from all of this with a warm and kindly impulse toward mankind nor peaceful, docile disposition.

So rather than wrap things up tidily and return everything to a warm state of normality, which can be satisfying for sure, this film leaves you with a "WHAT was THAT?" which has its own satisfactions. There's a lot of picking apart and puzzling to be done over the film, which is a welcome and refreshing change. Without giving anything away, it would seem that this film is about India finding her power as a woman, as other films like Shadow of a Doubt or Carrie or Ginger Snaps or such things are, it's just that the power she finds is not exactly the Shania Twain kind. Along the way there has been a lot of content about "bad blood" and corruption. We see the extreme lengths Dad went to to keep India free of the influence of bad Uncle Charlie, apparently because he knew what might happen, and, well, you'll see how it all comes out. In the image that pretty much says it all, we see that spider go right up between her legs... and we don't see it come out.

What you do get the whole way is some wondrously careful filmmaking that constructs images that ring with subtext and successfully bring us into India's mind, leaving plot and incident to be pieced together but focusing on emotional truths, even when they might not be something your Mom might approve of. This film makes a fascinating companion piece to the film I happened to see next, Spring Breakers, which also turns out to be about young women finding their power in ways in which society might rather they didn't. They both seem quite forward-looking in pointing toward a future that might not be all that pretty, but not for the reasons we were worried about.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it's beautifully made and devilishly interesting.