Stoker Movie Review
Written by Ted McCarthy
Directed by Chan-wook Park
Written by Wenworth Miller
2013, 98 minutes, rated R
Theatrical release on March 1st, 2013
Mia Wasikoska as India Stoker
Matthew Goode as Charlie Stoker
Nicole Kidman as Evelyn Stoker
Jacki Weaver as Gwendolyn “Gin” Stoker
Dermot Mulroney as Richard Stoker
To most cinephiles and appreciators of international cinema, Chan-wook Park (or, as you may have read it, Park Chan-wook – it’s a Korean thing) is a master filmmaker. His Vengeance trilogy gave us two of the greatest dramatic thrillers ever made with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy (the third film, Lady Vengeance, was a bit of a misstep), and no matter how you may feel about the extreme content in those films, there is no denying he is a natural craftsman. He has successfully tried his hand at horror before with Thirst and “Cut,” his contribution to the anthology Three…Extremes (the movie that put me off dumplings forever…but that’s another story), but with his new film Stoker, he tries to tackle the genre in a foreign language – ours.
I think most Park fans were cautiously curious about what his first English language film would be like. After all, filmmakers abroad are generally given more leeway with their productions in terms of content than they are here in the States, where our entertainment is policed by groups of benevolent but powerful dunces (looking at you, MPAA) and creatively defective money grubbers (looking at you, studio execs). Do you think we’d see a climax as devastating as Oldboy’s in a mainstream American film nowadays? Hell no, which is one reason I’m dreading Spike Lee’s on-again, off-again remake. Whether on his own or at the behest of Tinsletown’s powers that be, Park significantly tones down the violence in Stoker, and instead gives us a gothic mystery thriller that’s sort of being wrongly billed as a horror film.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) loses her father (Dermot Mulroney, seen only in flashbacks) in a car wreck on her eighteenth birthday. In the wake of his death, his long lost brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom India has never heard of, arrives to console India and her grieving mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Charlie is kind, charming, and eager to befriend India even as he seems to woo his brother’s widow. Beneath his smile, however, Charlie’s got quite a sinister side, including an affinity for using a belt for something other than keeping his trousers up. As the kids always do in movies, India notices this before anyone (except maybe her Aunt Gin, played by Jacki Weaver, who gets about ten minutes of screen time). But instead of cowering from him or trying to get rid of him, she seems perversely fascinated and even becomes complicit in some of his more violent acts. Charlie’s motives are murky. Is he after money? Is he after Evelyn? Is he just an opportunistic psychopath?
Visually, the film is arresting. One of the things that has always impressed me about Park’s previous films is his eye for shot composition (he reminds me of Stanley Kubrick in this way), and I was thrilled to see that Chung-hoon Chung, the cinematographer on the Vengeance trilogy and many of Park’s other films, was on board to make the film look so beautiful. The use of color is also admirably deliberate and meticulous, with characters’ clothing subtly matching the shades of the objects or environments around them. I’m sure there are plenty of these little artistic flourishes that I totally missed, and will look for whenever it is that I watch the film again.
As the morbid teen lead (kind of a cross between Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice and Angela Bettis in May), Wasikowska shows a good balance of innocence and maturity in India. She’s initially appalled by what Charlie has done, but is seduced by him almost as quickly as her mother. Goode, who I don’t think gets enough work, is nearly perfect throughout the film as Charlie, who’s so charming, handsome and perfect that he has to be evil. But unfortunately there’s one pivotal scene with him and Mulroney that calls for him to go beyond his natural smoothness and actually emote, and it pains me to say that it’s laughably bad. Kidman, the film’s biggest name, actually doesn’t fare so well, either. Her character of the aloof mother comes off as hammy and even wooden at times, and it’s much less than an actress of her caliber deserves.
There aren’t a great deal of surprises in Stoker, and even the “twist” reveal of certain characters’ intentions and motivations isn’t all that shocking (I am reminded a little of Oldboy’s twist, now that I think about it, although this one isn’t nearly as disturbing). Fans looking for the visceral brutality of the Vengeance trilogy will likely be bitterly disappointed, although the violence that is there – while not as frequent or graphic – is very personal and off-putting. But on the bright side, being able to create a good, compelling and creepy film without resorting to the sustained gruesome mayhem for which he is internationally known is just another testament to Park’s dexterity as a filmmaker.
Video, Audio and Special Features:
Video, audio and special features will not be graded as this was a screening.