Stoker (United States, 2013)

March 13, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Stoker Poster

Stoker is deliciously demented, and that's a good thing. This twisted coming-of-age tale takes us into Carrie territory without the supernatural element. It wends its way along an unpredictable narrative trajectory with a warped sensibility that offers a view of how a gothic romance might evolve if overseen by a modern-day Edgar Allen Poe. Written by Prison Break co-star Wentworth Miller and directed by Oldboy bad boy Chan-wook Park, this film is definitely not for everyone. It's the kind of movie that can inspire walk-outs. But those who stick with it may find it difficult to shake off its lingering impressions.

Stoker isn't afraid to venture into uncomfortable places and it isn't worried about whether or not it edges close to taboo zones. We are presented with incestuous intimations, a scene in which a person masturbates to a climax while reliving participation in a murder, and all kinds of creepily obsessive behavior. Most of the "action" transpires within the closed confines of a family home. When the characters occasionally emerge to interact with society at large, we are provided with glimpses of how truly damaged they are. You definitely wouldn't want to marry into the Stoker clan.

The film opens and closes by the side of a road, telling its entire story in flashback. We meet 18-year old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) at the funeral of her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) - a traumatic event for the high school senior due to her closeness to the dearly departed. Her mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman), is a boozy floozy whose parental capabilities are limited to remaindering her daughter to say "no thank you" instead of just "no." India meets her handsome, charming Uncle Charles (Matthew Goode) at the funeral - her father's younger brother who has spent most of his life traveling through Europe. We immediately sense there's something not quite right about Uncle Charles. His smile hides something dark. For that matter, there's something not quite right about India, either.

Stoker could be considered a horror film, although there's nothing supernatural about the evil inhabiting this world. Mia Wasikowska, whose open, innocent face made her a good choice for Alice in Tim Burton's Wonderland, displays an icy demeanor here. Every once in a while, we catch glimpses of teenage indecision and nervousness but, for the most part, she's succumbing to an inner darkness. Matthew Goode provides us with a classic sociopath: the smiling bon vivant who has developed a taste for grisly hors d'oeuvres. Yet even that doesn't do justice to a character whose secrets are parceled out throughout the narrative. Nicole Kidman's Evie has stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play, but this Kitten on a Hot Tin Roof finds that things aren't quite what she expects.

Chan-wook Park has developed a cult following as a result of his so-called "Vengeance trilogy": Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. He is a master of the visual and his skills are on display here through the inventive usage of color, distinctive shots, and unusual transitions. There's one beguiling dissolve in which strands of hair become blades of swamp grass. Park plays games with time, occasionally rearranging actions and intercutting between different characters engaged in parallel activities. This builds tension and suspense. Every frame of Stoker seeps dread. Sometimes, even mundane undertakings adopt an ominous cast.

One could successfully argue that Park goes too far with his visual chicanery and that, as a result, some scenes come across as a little "show-offy." Certainly, he's not brash about tossing out images for no particular reason beyond titillating the audience. The approach stops short of becoming a distraction, however, and it lends an element of otherworldliness to what might be a more straightforward (borderline exploitative) story in the hands of a less flamboyant filmmaker.

Not everything about Stoker works. There are some secondary storylines - one featuring school bullies and another involving Charlie's aunt - that have weak payoffs. On the whole, however, it's a perverse and fascinating peek into the erosion of the conscience. Wasikowski is creepy and her chemistry with Goode has an oily, poisonous quality that compels as it repulses. Stoker is more accessible than Oldboy but that doesn't mean it has mainstream potential. This movie has been made for a specific audience and, as a result, it's likely to create sharp divisions in the reactions of those who see it.

Stoker (United States, 2013)

Director: Chan-wook Park
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver, Dermot Mulroney
Screenplay: Wentworth Miller
Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung
Music: Clint Mansell
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2013-03-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1