Director: Park Chan-wook
Writer: Wentworth Miller
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney
Release date: March 1st, 2013
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Countries: USA, UK
Running time: 99 minutes
Best part: Chan-wook’s direction.
Worst part: The cartoonish supporting characters.
In the first few scenes of psychological thriller Stoker, we are brought into a strange, spooky yet beguiling world. The audience is whisked through the woods as we come across one symbol and titbit after another. This technique develops one of many beautifully crafted sequences in this discomforting visual and intellectual splendour. Stoker sticks with you and never lets go whilst giving us one of 2013’s most enterprising narratives.
Stoker is a creepily effective and moody assault on the mind and senses. Despite its minor inconsistencies, the movie sweeps you up in a visceral and gothic thrill-ride that would make Tim Burton and Stanley Kubrick blush then pass out. This gothic thriller starts off with a crippling tragedy befalling the Stoker household. India Stoker(Mia Wasikowska)’s 18th birthday celebrations turn sour when her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) is killed in a car accident. Her birthday then transitions into his funeral, as India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) quickly realise that Richard was the glue that held their family together. Their time to grieve is also hurriedly interrupted by Richard’s charming younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode). Charlie’s stay is met with a bevy of kooky supporting characters trapped inside India’s existence (including her concerned great aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver)), a slew of murders within the neighbouring town, and India’s mental, spiritual, and sexual transformations. Teenagers, huh?
South Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst) is one of world cinema’s most acclaimed directors. His movies thrust themselves into your consciousness and irritably crawl under your skin. His distinct imagery and darkly comedic touches push the boundaries of modern crime/thriller cinema. Before Stoker was released, I was praying that Hollywood wouldn’t treat Chan-wook with the same distain and idiocy it treats other big-name foreign filmmakers. Thankfully, he is able to apply is distressing style to this Hitchcockian drama. His storytelling prowess and idiosyncrasies push this dour story along at a controlled pace. If you have seen Oldboy (soon to be ‘blessed’ with a Hollywood remake), you would already be aware of Chan-wook’s fascination with family ties, the bitterness of existence, and the power of revenge. Here, his story and character ticks are brought up in an effervescent and tangible fashion. His purposeful direction elevates Prison Break lead actor Wentworth Miller’s intriguing yet conventional script. Miller’s first big-budget screenplay leans too heavily on many of Hitchcock’s seminal horror flicks (Shadow of a Doubt, in particular). Thanks to a love of Hitchcock’s efforts, I could easily predict many twists and turns within this confronting story. This movie also takes a while to get going. This aspect, though beguiling, may turn some people away from Chan-wook’s influential material. However, this story contains more emotional resonance than anything you would have witnessed on the big screen in the past few months. Its alienating tone grated my nerves before I became increasingly intrigued. This seemingly pristine horror-thriller gleefully looks into the literal, metaphorical, incestuous, and Freudian shades of life.
Featuring an array of sickly dark and light-hearted overtones, the narrative places a magnifying glass upon the ‘release’ of India’s inner demons. Stoker, featuring elements of Night of the Hunter, is a paranoia inducing examination of sanity, sensation, manipulation, and human connection. The movie continually transitions from kookily charming to gut-wrenchingly vile – turning into an ‘Addam’s Family meets American Beauty‘ style drama. The movie’s overt sexuality and infatuation with carnal desires are summed up in several enthralling sequences. A piano sequence featuring India and Charlie turns into a battle of brains, wits, and bulges. Here, the devil is in the details. Chan-wook’s style is immaculately plastered across the screen and spliced within each intricate frame. The applaudable craftsmanship is on par with Kubrick at his most alarming. His aesthetic ticks take the ‘conventional’ and turn it upside-down and inside out. His moody, atmospheric style builds every scene into a meticulous work of art. His fascinating editing techniques, in particular, are handled with care. One transition, in which brushed hair transforms into a field of tall grass, is simply jaw-dropping. Chan-wook’s methodical style is also applied to the sound design and cinematography. His eye for voyeuristic camera angles and movements pushes this narrative along at a refreshing click. Stoker is drowned in illusions and imaginative compositions. In fact, each plot point reaches a tension inducing and unique crescendo (throughout the second act, in particular). Every sound effect is burned into your skull like a lobotomy scar (a fitting description for this unnerving thriller). Crackling eggshells, gunshots, and the whistling wind will make you shift in your seat.
“He used to say: “sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.”” (India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), Stoker).
Thankfully, Chan-wook’s world isn’t developed this way for the sake of quirky aesthetic choices. His creation depicts parallels between puberty, independence, and masochism. Stoker‘s world is also a peculiar concoction of contrasting time periods. The Stokers live in a 1940s mansion fit with winding passages, creaking staircases, and bold colours. However, the Carrie-esque high school scenes contain many aesthetic idiosyncrasies reminiscent of 70s and present day settings. I’m not sure what Chan-wook is trying to say with this technique, but I still fell for Stoker‘s warped and precious universe. Stoker’s polarising characters also boost this studious look at the pheromonal and delusional mind. These people, reacting in vastly different ways to a major loss, are bafflingly and suspiciously vacant. India is a fascinating and vicious character ripped straight from Chan-wook’s previous efforts. Finding her way in life whilst coming to terms with death, destruction, and the opposite sex, she becomes a powerful force throughout this distorted coming-of-age drama. Credit goes to Wasikowska for persevering through the character’s many awkward and irritating transitions. India’s breakthrough moments, including the murder/’long shower’ sequence, chronicle Wasikowska’s immense talent. Kidman, thanks mostly to her “I can’t wait to watch life tare you apart” speech, conquers her minor yet profound role. Goode’s commanding screen presence pays off when required as his character’s menacing persona scintillates. Unfortunately, Weaver, Lucas Till and Alden Ehrenreich are given laughably one dimensional roles.
Despite the lack of Vampire lore and supernatural elements (given the title’s cultural relevance), Stoker is a moody, dour, and enthralling horror-thriller. Avoiding Hollywood’s ‘typical’ treatment of foreign directors, Chan-wook has crafted a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat from the enrapturing prologue to the polarising epilogue.