Stoker is a wonderfully directed gripping psychological thriller and the first English-language film by the great South Korean master Park Chan-Wook (Joint Security Area, Oldboy). Written for the screen by Wentworth Miller (best known as the star of Prison Break), it tells a macabre coming-of-age tale about family dysfunction and human depravity, within the mould of an atmospheric gothic horror. Featuring fantastic performances from Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode, its many chilling twists and turns effectively serve the formal brilliance of director Park’s vision. Any shortcomings with the script in the latter half are forgivable because of how incredibly beautiful it is visually and how immersive it is as an experience.
On the day of her 18th birthday introvert misfit India Stoker (Wasikowska) learns that her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) has died in a car accident. Estranged from her mother, Evelyn (Kidman), she becomes even more cold and withdrawn than usual in her grief. When her father’s charismatic brother Charlie (Goode), a man India has never known, comes to visit and decides to stay to help around the place, she is immediately suspicious of him. At a time when she is dealing with grief but existential angst, seclusion and her overbearing mother, the arrival of this stranger puts her at great unease. What secrets does he harbour? What is his fascination with her and why is she so drawn to him?
It is hard to believe that Wasikowska is only twenty-three years of age. Following a string of excellent performances in films like The Kids are All Right and Jane Eyre, she has bravely taken on this much darker turn. She admitted that the decision to accept this role was an easy one, and Park has taken every advantage of her striking and emotive features. She manages to convey so much more without even saying a word. Goode’s casting was perfect. He oozes charm, but he manages to simultaneously offer comfort and creep. Kidman has been on her game of late too, and her evidently emotionally unbalanced character tries her best to deal with her daughter’s strange behaviour and suppress her desire for the new man in her house. With such a battle raging within her walls she brilliantly conveys increasing distress.
Every sequence here is impeccably designed and executed. The construction of the reveals – with every bit of tension drawn out of the sequences – is especially impressive. It has one of the scenes of the year so far; a flawless example of the relationship between cause/effect suspense and technical proficiency. The way this particular sequence is edited, and the music utilised, gave me chills.
Park’s skills alone elevate this film. His formal genius, the clinical symmetry within the frame as well as his use of mirrors, shadows and recurring visual motifs leaves no doubt that he is in complete control over his vision. There is also some striking visual trickery – Kidman’s hair transforming into grass for example - with flashbacks inserted in to account for India’s revelations. Clint Mansell’s rich score adds to warped mystery, while the terrific piano duets and the use of a song called ‘Summer Wine’ result in this being an unforgettable trip for the senses.
The film’s only weaknesses lie in the screenplay, which is not to say it is bad at all. It is very economic throughout, building intriguing and mysterious characters, dropping clues that ultimately have greater significance than we initially suspect and always keeping an audience guessing. The story takes a direction that is quite disturbing, and from what we understand about the characters, and believe about human nature, it is one we can ‘just’ accept. However, the dramatic moments don’t have as much emotional weight as they try so hard to create, and as satisfying as the film is about self-discovery, sexual enlightenment and the acceptance of natural urges the cataclysm is perhaps a tad overdone.
What is clear from beginning to end is that there is a master behind the camera. I was thinking to myself throughout: “Park is directing the hell out of this”. The Hitchcock nods are apparent, but even Miller has commented on how much Shadow of A Doubt influenced his screenplay. I could never quite grasp where Stoker was headed next, which is always a great way to feel. Having only seen two of Park’s films (aforementioned), I cannot comment confidently about how this fits into his entire canon, but the suspense in this macabre thriller rivals some of the finest I have seen of late.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22