REVIEW: Stoker [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 99 minutes | Release Date: March 1st, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Chan-wook Park
Writer(s): Wentworth Miller

“We are not responsible for what we have come to be”

Despite being a new venture for both screenwriter and director, Stoker is the type of film that sticks with you whether you want it to or not. There’s an unsettling feeling from the first frame with Mia Wasikowska‘s India talking in voiceover as she roams through an overgrown field, spouting omnisciently philosophical musings while the image hitches as each credit appears. Clint Mansell‘s score helps create a foreboding sense of dread leading perfectly into the disembodied, blood-curdling scream that fades away as the title card’s calligraphy materializes in a wonderful bit of aesthetic polish courtesy of director Chan-wook Park in his first English-language endeavor. His style keeps us glued to the screen as the duplicitous nature of the titular family’s strange newcomer Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) is introduced with a disarmingly creepy smile and knowing glare.

But who would have thought “Prison Break’s” Wentworth Miller would be the one to start the ball rolling? Not even him apparently as the script submitted to Hollywood had Ted Foulke listed as its author, a penname used in the hopes his celebrity wouldn’t taint its future for better or worse. Proving to be a brilliant move with the draft finding its way onto 2010’s Black List as one of the best unproduced screenplays making the rounds, it quickly got scooped up, attached with Park, and shortly thereafter Wasikowska, Goode, and Nicole Kidman for Stoker matriarch Evelyn. The truth came out after being green-lit on its own merits and one must wonder whether the process would have been prolonged otherwise. Either way, Miller will definitely be able to keep his name on his next from day one.

I don’t say this because it’s a masterpiece met with critical acclaim and fan appreciation—it actually barely equaled its budget at the box office and met with divisiveness from audiences. It is, however, an undeniably assured debut with intrigue, depth, and complexity perfectly suited for someone like Park who made his name with darkly disturbing revenge flicks such as Oldboy. He deserves much of the credit too whether by the style and tone he sets or the deliberate pacing complementing India’s dour scowl and Charlie’s robotically plastic sheen of idyllic charm hiding horrible secrets we can only begin to guess. Everything is meticulously planned and blocked with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung too for gorgeous angles, compositions, and mesmerizing transitions like turning Kidman’s hair into a field of grass. Stoker arrests you visually as the story haunts your imagination.

We officially meet India on the day of her father Richard’s (Dermot Mulroney) funeral. The severity of the situation doesn’t quite seem to have hit yet, especially with her mother talking on and on about how close the girl was with him, but she wears the black dress and quietly moves about the guests judging and wondering exactly what the point of everything is. The only person of any intrigue is the uncle she never knew she had—the young, handsome Charlie who cannot help but stand out against the rest. But while his charm effects Evelyn a bit too much being so close to her husband’s tragic end for the gossips surrounding her, the wordless dance he plays with India becomes the most powerful connection despite appearing to be between two opposing magnetic forces.

And then people start to disappear—not enough to blindly label Stoker more horror than thriller, but enough to make us wonder what’s hidden behind Charlie’s fabricated warmth. Secret conversations begin to amplify into our ears as India’s “power” to hear what most human beings cannot keeps her abreast of pretty much everything happening around her and thus begins her covert search through his things for answers as to where he came from. Alongside this clear-cut detective mission, however, also exists a bold metaphorical bent about adulthood, virginity, murder’s interchangeable rush with sexual pleasure, and a tiny, adventurous spider crawling around for the ride. The Stoker family past rises to the surface and we realize a choice has been posed to India about whether she’ll gravitate towards darkness or light.

Park’s visual flourishes enhance every step—sometimes going overboard like an odd sequence between Goode and Kidman inside a room with two doors that are opened and closed for added tension? Metaphor? Pure symmetric aesthetic? Who knows? Nevertheless, there’s a wonderfully macabre hue hovering over each frame whether the wardrobe, cold stares, or half-hearted attempts to veil double-meanings once newcomers like the town Sheriff (Ralph Brown), Auntie Gwen (Jacki Weaver), and high school loner Whip (Alden Ehrenreich) come to join the fun. Coupled with the sterile camera movements, expertly timed pans and cuts, and impeccable use of the house’s architecture, Park has outdone himself in making sure the creepiness of Miller’s script stays nuanced when a Hollywood director may have otherwise played up the scares and blood for mainstream appeal.

The film is very much an acquired taste as a result that may prove boring and/or arty to those less inclined to experience something outside their comfort zone. Conversely, I find myself growing disappointed in the reveal’s obvious underpinnings that those people would probably enjoy, but the way its exposed is effective enough to support the complicated nature of India’s decision for her future. This is in large part due to the performances that edge close to over-the-top but never quite spill over. Kidman relishes the emotional instability; Goode the calculating confidence; and Wasikowska the pitch-black, nightmarish fairy tale-esque angel floating stoically in and out of societal expectations until discovering her true self and personality. India is a perfect contrast to the one-note, flighty romantics her career could easily have fallen prey and a welcome career progression.

[1] Mia Wasikowska as “India” and Matthew Goode as “Uncle Charlie” on the set of STOKER. Photo By: Macall Polay
[2] Nicole Kidman as “Evie Stoker” on the set of STOKER. Photo By: Macall Polay
[3] Mia Wasikowska as “India” and Matthew Goode as “Uncle Charlie” on the set of STOKER. Photo By: Macall Polay

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