(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on March 15, 2013.)
Director Park Chan-Wook has never been one to shy away from the darker side of the human psyche, as his cinematic output in his native Korea so readily shows. The most-known of his films to Western audiences, Oldboy, was based on a Japanese manga comic describing the life of a man’s cannily-laid plan of revenge, the final twist of which was rather shocking. With each movie, Park explores the places we’re too scared to go for fear of what we might find, and his first American release, Stoker, goes straight into this uncomfortable territory.
As shot and acted, this uncomfortable territory is masked in elegance and an upper-class ostrich syndrome – that façade that moviedom’s rich people always seem to put on to cover any possible tensions bubbling below the surface. This forced gentility is painted all over the face of Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), a privileged housewife who’s just lost her husband Richard (Dermot Mulroney) in a car accident on her daughter India’s (Mia Wasikowska) birthday. As a budding young woman on the cusp of leaving adolescence for adulthood, India spends a lot of the movie skulking around like Wednesday Addams, being withdrawn and aloof, observing everything going on while she’s mourning her father’s loss. Volunteering his services for the emotionally damaged mother and daughter, Richard’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) steps into their lives and helps out as much as he can, to everyone else’s consternation. The definition of Charlie’s “help,” however, is rather questionable…
Stoker starts off unsettling – static shots broken up by jarring still frames, a woman’s disembodied scream, and India’s floating voiceover describing herself – and stays unsettling, as Charlie insinuates himself into Evelyn’s life and India’s thoughts. Throughout most of the movie, we see the world through India’s eyes, as she deals with this interloper affecting all parts of her life, whether at home or at school, where things aren’t at all perfect. As the ugly duckling (who’s not ugly at all), India doesn’t seem to care about much, even if the school meathead fakes throwing a punch at her. Slowly, we see signs of what’s to come over the course of the movie, and it’s not going to be all puppy dogs and ice cream.
Masterfully directed by Park Chan-Wook, Stoker is the kind of suspense movie where you hang on every word, gesture, montage, and hint with your breath stuck in your throat. Nicholas de Toth’s editing and Wentworth Miller’s script transform this story from a run-of-the-mill drama to one of the best modern thrillers in recent memory. Overlaying arthouse sensibilities with Hitchcockian suspense, Park makes us squirm for 99 minutes as he makes us nervously watch India as she grows from introverted teenager to the character she evolves into by story’s end. Wasikowska plays India with an almost autistic bent, climbing into her own world for sanctuary, but eventually reaching out to the world at large. But everything she touches in the real world goes horribly wrong due to her social awkwardness… or is it her Uncle Charlie’s influence slowly gaining a firm grip on her?
The three leads – Kidman, Goode, and Wasikowska – make this emotionally and morally compromised family come to life so compellingly that it’s hard not to get totally engrossed in their lives. Goode wonderfully mixes sharp-eyed crazy with an odd sort of childlike detachment, almost as if everyone else is in another dimension, not seeing what he sees. He’s not really a part of this world; he can move about in it, but no one has an effect on him, even as his movements toward his endgame grow more erratic. As the wounded animal in his gunsights, Kidman throws herself into Evelyn, alternating between being the vulnerable grieving widow and being the purring cat that’s finally getting the attention she wants from her sudden houseguest. You never know quite what’s going on in any of their heads, but by film’s end, it all gets made clear and frighteningly obvious; when the film’s final sequence starts up, you’ll gasp in horror, as you recollect everything that has transpired to bring India to this point.
Alfred Hitchcock once defined suspense as having a bomb under a table with the audience’s full knowledge; they know when it’s going to go off, but the people in the film continue to go about their lives. That is exactly what Goode’s Charlie is to Stoker: he’s the bomb that the audience sees, awaiting his eventual explosion. However, Evelyn and India don’t see it until it’s way too late; by the time the bomb goes off, lives are irrevocably changed, with none surviving the unavoidable blast. Stoker – so aptly named for one who stokes – is a doozy of a thriller with a sense of dread that you won’t be able to shake for days. Even though it’s early in the year, this is definitely on my list of my favorites of 2013.