Following the example set by countryman Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand, South Korea’s Park Chan-Wook makes his own triumphant English language debut with Stoker. An unsettling family drama that plays out like a stylized version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, the film is mild by the director’s violent standards but wonderfully disturbing nonetheless.
Not a biopic of Bram Stoker, though the Dracula author would surely approve of its dark nature, Stoker centers on 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and the events that transpire following the untimely death of her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney). Distant with her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), India’s existence is further unsettled by the arrival of her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom neither she nor her mother knew existed until the funeral. Alongside Evie’s vulnerability and India’s suspicious glowering, Charlie’s Stepford Husband creepiness makes for a captivating trio and one whose ever-shifting dynamic yields immense pleasure.
Penned by Wentworth Miller, best known for his leading role in the TV show Prison Break, the film is a delectable drawn-out mystery that steadily grows with terror. Upon Charlie’s appearance, a series of perfectly portioned clues begins, each of which raise red flags galore yet give away little. Soon, people with knowledge of Charlie and who potentially pose a threat to him staying at the Stoker home go missing, and though India’s creep-o-meter reads off the charts, there’s something appealing about her uncle that she can’t quite sort out.
Augmenting Stoker’s suspense is a distinct visual style that those familiar with Park’s Oldboy are sure to recognize. Images frequently blend into one another, becoming new objects as they gorgeously link otherwise incongruous scenes and never prove distracting. Of these, the sequence sure to be talked about afterward in the theater lobby involves Evie’s auburn hair giving way to a luscious strand of billowing pond reeds, in which India and Richard hunker while on a past hunting trip. Elsewhere, shots of gradually shrinking boxed shoes initially suggest a similar flashback, then pull back for a wordless evocation of melancholy that dialogue could only hope to match. Sewn together with stunning precision, the collective effect is a joy to behold and the clear handiwork of a world-class filmmaker.
Amid such evocative imagery, Miller’s first filmed script nonetheless expresses the occasional freshman jitter. The revelation of Charlie’s past is enacted with minor clumsiness and the banter among India’s fellow high schoolers often ring hollow. Park is so firmly in control of the film’s look, mood, and acting, however, that the stutters barely matter. The director’s vision is evident throughout Stoker, and what a powerful vision it is.
Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content.