Rating: 5 stars out of 5
‘Stoker’ is a film that's got a lot of positive buzz going for it. For one, it's directed by Park Chan-Wook, the Korean auteur behind the classic ‘Vengeance’ trilogy (‘Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance’, ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Sympathy For Lady Vengeance’). This marks the first time he's directing an English language film and fittingly enough, he's working with well recognised names in Scott Free Productions, founded by brothers Ridley and the late Tony Scott.
Secondly, the script was on the 2010 edition of the Hollywood Black List, a list of the best unproduced screenplays. The mysterious screenplay, written by one Ted Foulke, turned up without any fanfare and started catching the eyes of agents and directors everywhere. As it turns out, Ted Foulke is a pseudonym for Wentworth Miller who was worried about not being taken seriously had he used his real identity. Yes, that same hunky Wentworth Miller from ‘Prison Break’.
The story revolves around the Stoker family; in particular, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), the young, pensive and somewhat unknowable daughter. The sudden death of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney) with whom she was very close with, hits her hard. The death also sees the mysterious emergence and return of eccentric Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who neither India nor her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) had previously known about. Despite that, both Evelyn and India are eventually drawn to Charlie and his charms.
With this movie, Park Chan-Wook shows why he isn't just one of Asian Cinema's most unique and creative auteurs, but also one of the world's best, period. Park's work in the past, especially in the ‘Vengeance’ trilogy, has always possessed an immense uneasiness and a certain power at unsettling the viewer. This picture's no different.
There's a deliberate and calm sureness to Park's execution and he pulls out every cinematic technique you could possibly think of to achieve this effect; Dutch angles, choppy paced editing, an emphasis on loud jarring diegetic sound, Clint Mansell's eerie score and lots of extremely tight and uncomfortable close ups. You name it, he uses it to great effect, giving the viewer many a spine tingling chill in the process.
Essentially, he's traded in the normal set of shocks that comes along with a horror movie for a permanent feeling of uneasy worry from not knowing what's coming next. And that feeling never stops escalating, so when it's all over, you'll be positively exhausted from it all, just like many of his past films. For someone who took up film making after a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock's ‘Vertigo’, Park has really done the Master of Suspense himself proud here.
The actors knock it out of the park with their respective performances. In the lead role of India, Mia Wasikowska nails it. As a girl about to take her first steps into womanhood, the appearance of Uncle Charlie brings a slew of emotions and pushes in two directions, back towards childhood and further into the embrace of adulthood.
Wasikowska cements her status as one of cinema's brightest young talents, as she delivers a performance full of poise and steady calm, which almost enhances everything that is occurring around her to be that much scarier than they are.
By its definition, a stoker is one who feeds a furnace with the necessary fuel to keep it going and Matthew Goode plays that part perfectly here. As the charming yet enigmatic Uncle Charlie, Goode is full of mischievous glee playing devil's advocate to the women of the Stoker family. The pure seductive power from this performance is not one to be missed.
Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman continues her stunning career revival, with yet another sultry performance after her dramatic turns in ‘Rabbit Hole’ and ‘The Paperboy’. There are many hints as to why the mother-daughter dynamic is frosty and complex. Is it because India is simply closer to her dad instead of her? Or maybe because India reminds her of her lost youth? Nobody really knows and that's the beauty of it.
With everything else in the movie, Director Park litters the movie with all sorts of hints and misdirections, setting up a game for the viewer to try and figure if what's being shown or spoken is really happening or just another red herring amongst the many planted in the movie.
The only weakness in the movie is really Miller's script, which makes Uncle Charlie seem like a superhuman who can appear at places seemingly at will. That aside, it's a good screenplay armed with several smart ideas. The push-pull dynamic of Mia's coming of age story and the familiar "strange new guest" dynamic, though a little cliché, is an effective one and when accompanied by other elements in the script like the Hitchcock (it's an interpretation of Hitchcock's ‘Shadow Of A Doubt’) and literary homages (hint: author is the namesake of this movie) push the script to being a little more than above average material.
That said, the execution and performances are so good that you'll readily forgive Miller for Charlie and his “teleportations”. By allowing the movie to focus on the characters' volatile relationships and letting them reveal who they are, Park's take on a modern Hitchcock thriller comes out of the fray a success, feeling more than just another genre film.
And he does it without sacrificing the balls and bravery that made his Korean films so good too. A mix of American Gothic, familial drama and mystery elements, Park's memorable first Hollywood effort cements him as the modern master of suspenseful horror and the closest thing to ol' Hitchcock today... And we eagerly wait for more from him.