The international success of the Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance), and the acclaimed vampire horror film Thirst (2009) has seen the Korean director Park Chan-wook become one of the most respected filmmakers currently working. English-language debut Stoker brings with it Chan-wook’s distinctive filmmaking style, rich with ideas and minute detail.
It’s at once a family drama, gothic mystery and eerie fairytale, shot through with a sense of the supernatural. Unlike Thirst, Stoker‘s character’s are ostensibly human, yet there are constant suggestions that something equally monstrous lurks beneath their pale facade.
Mia Wasikowska plays India, a quiet and sensitive teenage girl who lives in an expansive, remote house somewhere unspecified in rural America. Bullied at school and emotionally cut off from her glacial mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), India appears to be disconnected from time, too; her clothes and her surroundings could be from the 1920s, such is their buttoned-up austerity – it’s only later glimpses of modern cars and mobile phones that reveal Stoker’s true place in the present.
As Stoker begins, India’s life is beset by tragedy. Her father, with whom she spent most of her childhood hunting pheasant, has suddenly died in a car accident, leaving India alone in her echoing house with her embittered mother. But during the funeral, India’s estranged Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) suddenly appears – someone India’s heard about, but never met. Charismatic and urbane, he immediately charms Evelyn and earns the begrudging fascination of India, with his stories of Europe and skills as a pianist, and a battle ensues between mother and daughter for Charlie’s affections, hastened by the uncle’s skilful manipulation; for beneath Charlie’s wide eyes and beguiling smile, a hint of darkness lurks.
Based on the 2010 Blacklist screenplay written by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller, Stoker is a stylish collision of genres. It contains the dark secrets, hints of incest and repressed sexuality of a Poe story, the black humour, visual creativity and unexpected turns of events of a vintage Hitchcock mystery, all served up with verve and dark wit.
When Chan-wook and cinematographer Chung Hoon-Chung reference Hitchcock movies in certain moments (Shadow Of A Doubt and Psycho are obvious touchstones), it’s with intelligence and keen humour, and their personal fingerprints are all still over this film – if anyone had fears that Chan-wook’s style of filmmaking might be somehow watered down by travelling to America, Stoker should dispel those immediately.
There’s the same obsessive attention to minute details that Chan-wook brought to his Korean films: the sound of a leather belt creaking through trouser loops, the disquieting shots of spiders creeping up legs, repeated visual motifs, geometric wallpaper, sequences repeated yet meaning something else because of their juxtaposition… Stoker is a film put together with huge care, from editor Nicolas De Toth’s masterful interconnection of scenes, to Clint Mansell’s murmuring score. The technical mastery (and sexual tension) reaches boiling point in a single set-piece: Wasikowska and Goode’s piano duet, with an eerie piece of music composed by Philip Glass.
Pared back to its purest thriller elements, you might say that Stoker’s almost a flimsy affair, and some of its intended twists may even be spotted a little sooner than intended. But Stoker’s so much more than the Sunday afternoon thriller it could have been. Filmmaking brilliance aside, Wentworth Miller’s script seldom puts a foot wrong from a dramatic standpoint, as it introduces characters who we think we know, before gradually revealing additional layers and hidden depths. The quietly insinuating dialogue suggests all sorts of things without saying them outright; no one really ever argues; instead, the snipe and jab at one another with terse, ambiguous lines.
Stoker’s one of those films that had all sorts of names attached and then removed before production, but the cast we’ve ended up with is uniformly brilliant. Wasikowska’s the picture of restraint as India, a girl on the brink of womanhood, and whose repressions are revealed to be more than merely sexual. Matthew Goode is fantastic as Uncle Charlie, bringing an almost boyish innocence to his role; although you could argue he looks rather too young to play the brother of Dermot Mulroney’s character, his airbrushed, cherubic face sits perfectly with the movie’s fairytale air of unreality.
The true revelation, though, is Nicole Kidman. She runs the gamut of emotions as Evelyn, and her performance is truly mesmerising – one monologue about child rearing is an absolute show-stopping moment.
Stoker is a sublime example of the modern work of gothic fiction. It has all the trappings you’d expect – those repressed feelings of sex and murder, those mysteries kept safely locked away – but it serves them up in a manner that is fresh and quite simply mesmerising.
In the wrong hands, Stoker could have been flattened out into a less interesting film, a by-the-numbers thriller. But Park Chan-wook wrings every drop of creative possibility from it, and the result is a stylish, sumptuous piece of filmmaking.
Stoker is out in UK cinemas on the 1st March.
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