Written by: Wentworth Miller
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse."
I’m not one to bemoan the shape of modern horror, mostly because the genre has been in pretty good shape over the past decade-plus. However, I can’t help but think that we could use more genre auteurs with authentic, distinctive voices; for the better part of that recent time period, most of them have come from overseas. South Korea’s Park Chan-wook has emerged as a most distinguished provocateur with an elegant blend of violence, eroticism, and mystery that has gone on to define—or at least shade—much of his country’s output during the oughts. His latest effort, Stoker, brings him to America, a move that brings the typical fear surrounding Hollywood’s tendency to swallow unique voices. However, those fears can quickly and easily be dismissed: Stoker might fashion itself after Hitchcock and De Palma, but it’s unmistakably delivered in Chan-wook’s voice.
His subjects are the bizarre, almost ethereally gothic Stokers, a prominent New England family. Patriarch Richard (Dermot Mulroney) has recently perished in a car accident, leaving his daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) alone with her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Shortly after the funeral, India’s mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives at the family home and decides to move in. Evelyn is somewhat disturbingly taken for him, but Charlie’s affections are even more disturbing since he his heart is settled on his own niece.
Stoker might take its starting point from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but it takes that film’s concept and thoroughly perverts it into unseemly schlock. It almost feels like a fan-fic conceit: what if Teresa Wright’s “Little Charlie” was a troubled young woman on the verge of an explosive sexual awakening. And, worse yet, what if her genetics insisted that she might not automatically recoil in horror at her salacious, sinister uncle? That’s the framework of Wentworth Miller’s script, which unspools delightfully when guided by Chan-wook’s hand. At heart, it’s lurid, trashy junk, full of incestual overtones and some frankly obvious plot twists, but it’s a joy to watch its director elevate the material into a compelling look at dueling psychoses. If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then the Stokers are almost gleefully fucked up: Charlie is a shrewd cad, a devil in a dapper suit, while Evelyn is catatonically resigned to her guilt and shame.
And then there’s India, the distant, obviously strange girl operating at the center of this familial psychodrama. India almost seems to live in a fantasy land (Chan-wook may be darkly riffing on Wasikowska’s appearance in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) where her father always hides the same birthday present (a new pair of shoes) for her to find each year. When he dies, that world is shattered, but Wasikowska economically relates that India has always been a little off. Her trick as a performer is slowly revealing just how darkly odd she is—or potentially could be. Without spoiling too much, it’s fair to say that Stoker presents a battle for India’s mind, soul, and body. I may have oversold the screenplay’s predictability—some elements are a bit routine, but there are some genuine shocks as well. Chan-wook and Miller turn to the Psycho playbook about midway through, at which point the focus of the film seems to shift (it’s even marked by a scene in a shower) and this dainty, affected girl has powerfully transformed through the combined powers of sex and violence.
Few directors could deliver such a maelstrom with elegance, but Chan-wook does so with breathtaking precision. The performances are knowingly mannered in a way that calls attention to the film’s general weirdness right off the bat; there’s never a sense that we’re dealing with anything but a strange family whose enigmatic uncle is harboring some terrible secrets and intentions. All of this is so obviously sketched that you almost expect a profound rug-pull with Charlie, but he doles out an ample amount of seediness in due time. Chan-wook isn’t interested in merely trudging through these motions, though; instead, he exquisitely tip-toes about before blowing through them with incredible panache. Every moment—from moody establishing shots to the gripping climax—is visually arresting and swells with import. Even an obligatory flashback scene that reveals Charlie’s past and the circumstances surrounding his brother’s death feels immediate and intense, whereas most movies would grind to a halt during such requisite reveals. Miller’s script is clever enough, but it takes on a certain, oddball energy in Chan-wook’s measured, assured hands.
Stoker also crafts a villain that would do Hitchcock proud. Goode is certainly channeling Joseph Cotten as Charlie, the overly congenial uncle whose suave façade hides an underlying malevolence. This Charlie seems to delight in allowing cracks in that façade; he treats his interactions with Evelyn and India as a delicate dance that finds him edging around his intentions but not completely concealing them either. Watching the waltz between he and India is particularly fascinating, as the two continually seem to shift roles—this is a unique cat and mouse dance where both participants switch places at various points. India is also playing a most awkward game of hard-to-get that finds her horrified and intrigued at her uncle’s advances towards both herself and her mother, and Wasikowska brilliantly plays off of Goode’s disturbingly cocksure demeanor in a turn that requires an equal mix of vulnerability, pathos, and aggressiveness. Caught between it all is a reserved, understated performance from Kidman that’s marked by an overbearing sadness—there’s a sense that this woman considers herself a failure as a wife and mother, so she throws herself into these shocking proceedings with wild abandon.
Chan-wook’s singular, authoritative voice unifies Stoker into a transcendent work of Gothic splendor. Uniquely beautiful and hypnotic despite the ugly menace brooding beneath its surface, the film is the stunningly refined work of a master. Calling feels like a disservice—it simply smolders with an subtly intense sense of passion that feels like it should be at odds with Chan-wook’s precise, icy approach. Instead, the two blend together in dazzling fashion: this is a sexy, visceral, and dangerous work of art. It’s a film that dares to tantalize its perversities before indulging and reveling in them. There’s nothing juvenile about its provocations though; Chan-wook is too meticulous to engage in such emptiness, so one observes a fascinating sublimity in its meticulously crafted portrait of madness. We all go a little mad sometimes, but few do so in such a gorgeously haunting fashion. Buy it!
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