Stoker marks the English language debut of Oldboy director Park Chan-wook. For years Park has dazzled us with his revenge thrillers which finely balance fascinating characters with artery slicing violence, his lead characters often remain the strong silent types, people on the periphery of their worlds just waiting to become what they were always destined to be. It seems, with his first foray into a more Hollywood existence, that Park is no different from his protagonists and is capable of making just as strong and deadly an entrance as his on-screen alter egos.
When her father (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a horrific car crash, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is left heartbroken. At the funeral, India and her domineering mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) meet mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). While Evelyn is delighted at Charlie’s presence in their lives, India is more reserved, suspicious of this newfound relative’s intentions towards her. When great aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) arrives in town to keep an eye on India she too is unsettled by Charlie and is unconvinced by his story of his absence through travelling the world up until now. As India slowing begins to warm to Charlie, friends and family begin to go missing and dear old uncle seems a little overly interested in India’s life.
Sinister and dark, Stoker is a film which both dazzles and delights in the most wicked ways possible. Written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, it is a film that creeps off the screen and makes a comfortable nest deep in your mind, waiting to hatch its disturbing secrets without ever pandering to exposition.
Park creates a gothic undertow to everything, his camera gracefully exploring India’s existence allowing us an intimate insight into both her psyche and burgeoning, yet stilted, emotions about the world around her. In many ways the Stoker family are an off-shot of The Adams Family; dysfunctional, maybe, fascinating, always and yet you hope and long for the dark temptations to gradually bubble to the surface. And bubble they do, the plot gently simmering to a boiling point that leaves a baleful grin plastered on your face.
As he did with Oldboy and his take on the vampire mythology Thirst, Park paints Stoker with a drained pallet, a colour scheme that allows India’s drab clothes to perfectly blend in until the momentous moment she blossoms into something new. All the while the sexual chemistry broods beneath the almost Charlotte Bronte like levels of frustration and forbidden love. Huge credit should go to Miller who has conjured a script which unfolds at a spine-chillingly satisfying pace, always maintaining just enough mystery to keep you utterly immersed in the characters and slow-burn plot.
Matthew Goode has never been better. His Charlie is a catalyst in India’s life, a grinning Cheshire Cat complete with flights of fancy and tricks to help India keep the baying school boys at arms length. Kidman brings an icy cool, porcelain anger to Evelyn, calculating and erratic it’s a world removed from her flamboyant performance in The Paperboy but wonderfully reminiscent of her role in Eyes Wide Shut. As if her character from Kubrick’s final film has finally gone off the rails to live a wide-eyed twisted life holed up in a house too big even for her over the top ways. But it is Mia Wasikowska who shines the brightest. Her portrayal of India is wonderfully bird-like, eyes darting this way and that while beneath the calm curiosity you long for that inner demon to break free and run amok.
Between Stoker and Neil Jordon’s Byzantium, disturbing gothic families are having quite the impact on this year’s cinematic output. Stocker is up there with the year’s finest, a neat, riveting and compelling film that evokes endless shivers and grins of ominous foreboding.