In an age of four-quadrant crossover hits and film franchises being stacked up like so many hamburgers, it’s massively exciting to encounter a film uninterested in making nice with the audience and even more impressive to see a filmmaker brought from overseas without any dilution of what made their original work so refreshing in the first place. We’re long past the days of John Woo and Broken Arrow, as Chan-wook Park’s English debut Stoker so brilliantly demonstrates. Instead of a voice coming stateside to attempt to graft a small bit of their sensibility onto something generic, Stoker is pure Park through and through: equal parts grotesque and gorgeous, sensual and startling. The films charts the unusual relationship that develops between young India Stoker (The Kids Are All Right’s Mia Wasikowska) and her recently discovered Uncle Charlie (Brideshead Revisited’s Matthew Goode), fresh from overseas and back to help both India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) cope with the sudden loss of the family’s patriarch, Richard (Dermot Mulroney). India quickly becomes infatuated with this mysterious new relative, and becomes more and more involved with him even as her suspicions of ulterior motives become stronger and stronger.
Wasikowska manages the heavy lifting of the picture, managing somehow to imbue an extreme introvert with charismatic screen presence allowing for the audience to follow her into some pretty dark places, both literal and metaphorical. Goode earns his family name with a performance that manages to menace as much as it seduces. And Kidman does fine work in slowly chipping away at the artifice that defines all interactions with her daughter as the film progresses. Fine supporting turns from Jacki Weaver and Phyllis Somerville help round out a very ably performed work. And while the story itself isn’t reinventing the wheel (psychosexual melodrama with a pinch of Hitchcock thrown in for flavor), it deserves credit for bringing each of these characters, all feeling unmoored and abandoned in their own unique ways, together in a satisfying manner. A particular reveal late in the game (no worries, I shan’t spoil) sheds new light on a character’s resentments, and reveals something once believed to be selfish as actually altruistic.
But the plotting and acting in the film are all secondary when faced with Chan-wook Park’s immense talent as a filmmaker, especially when one has crafted an experience as cinematically visceral as Park has here. The camerawork, sound design and editing all work in perfect concert to place you into the very specific mind frame that our main character India inhabits, focusing you in alongside her almost Aspergian attention to small details that would otherwise go unnoticed. Almost every frame in the film is composed with the intent of keeping you slightly off balance, and not enough could be said in so short a review about the bravura editing that moves the film along at a hypnotic pace (a hair-based transition took all my effort to keep from applauding aloud in the middle of the cinema), drawing startling parallels between a young girls burgeoning sexuality and the violence she finds herself drawn towards.
It must be said that Stoker is definitely (one might say defiantly) not for everyone, if the sexual-awakening-brought-on-by-violence wasn’t indication enough. It succeeds wildly as a stylistic exercise, but in an era of exposition-rich dialogue and characters behaving formulaically this might prove to be far too adventurous for the multiplex-going audience. (The audience who attended my screening audibly voiced discomfort at multiple junctures.) But if you don’t mind a little spice in your cinematic diet, you’d be doing yourself a grave disservice by missing out on work from one of our finest living filmmakers. Stoker is an exhilaratingly cinematic experience that begs to be shared with a crowd in the dark, and I implore you take the opportunity to seek it out.
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman
Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Written by: Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Date: March 22, 2013