Stoker is an unsettling, atmospheric thriller starring Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut), Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland), and Matthew Goode (Watchmen). It is Director Park Chan-wook‘s first English language film, and after his much-lauded Vengeance trilogy – in particular the second of the three films, Oldboy – the expectation for him to deliver another masterclass in cinematic suspense, has almost been matched by our anticipation to see it.
Although based in the modern-day, the Stoker family live an almost Victorian existence. Daughter India (Wasikowska) attends high school where she is picked on for her Carrie-esque personality of an outdated wardrobe, inability to conform, and willing disconnection from her surroundings. She lives with her mother, Evelyn (Kidman), in a mansion full of gossiping servants, dust-ridden decor and a strangely haunting ethereality.
The film opens with the dreamlike introduction of India. She is curiously exploring the woods and fields surrounding the Stoker family home as her whispers inform us of her strange ability to both see and hear what others cannot – a sort of murky sixth sense which attracts her to a darker, secretive existence. We are fully introduced to her after the unseen death of her father (Dermot Mulroney), the one person in her world who she had a worthwhile relationship with.
While at her father’s funeral, India notices a shady character watching the ceremony from a distance. She later finds out this is her Uncle, Charlie (Goode), An Uncle she didn’t know she had.
Evelyn is mournful of her husband’s sudden and strange death, but her own detachment and selfish manner – from her husband as well as her daughter – allows her to swiftly forget about the broken and troubled relationship she had with the recently departed. Instead she focuses her attentions on the mysterious Charlie whom she has invited to stay.
As Charlie’s stay lengthens, Evelyn becomes increasingly obsessed with him. India’s curiosities regarding his motives and sudden appearance also strengthen, and we are invited further down into a rabbit hole full of dark secrets, burgeoning sexual tensions and sinister obsessions.
The performances from all three leads are as accomplished as would be expected. Goode is especially commanding of his character. He is as enigmatic as in any of his recent roles – again delivering the creepy yet delightful, ‘I know I’m better than you’ persona like nobody else can. His classical good looks and well-to-do manner soak this dark gentleman with a radiant charm which is simultaneously hard not to warm to and an outright pleasure to watch.
As intriguing as these performances are, this film is all about the mis-en-scene, music and cinematography.
Much Like Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, the dominance of a fully enveloping atmosphere is hypnotically powerful in the first half of Stoker. But when the aptly simple premise becomes more complex, its effect begins to wane a few degrees as you begin to try to predict the twists, hidden motives and agendas, which, although almost as intriguing as their surroundings, do not always seem as considered and well-executed.
For newcomers to the work of Park Chan-wook, a slight restlessness and yearn for a quickening pace would be excusable. But when you accept and allow yourself to become accommodated to his unique style and vision, a lack of narrative clarity and an air of confusion regarding the characters spurious actions, is easily forgiven.
Tense, brooding, and unnervingly atmospheric, Stoker delivers an unforgettable experience akin to falling from height in slow motion in a tranquilized state of acceptance. From the offset you are fully aware that the climax is coming, but instead of willing its arrival, you are hypnotised and consumed by the brilliant and unexpected opportunity to study the detail and surrealism of the tragic and unsettling journey towards the inevitable. Here is a powerful cinematic discipline and storytelling skill only matched in the mainstream West by the patient dedication and respect for artistry of Nicolas Winding Refn with films such as Drive and Valhalla Rising.
Stoker is a rarity in modern mainstream cinema. A genuine example of film as art. Park Chan-wook has taken the utmost care and consideration with every frame, and constructed each layer with the detail, care and skill, usually reserved for celebrated avant-garde admissions.
Mr Chan-wook, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Please come again.