Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: March 01, 2013
Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Stars: 4 out of 5
Fans of Hitchcock’s film “Shadow of a Doubt” might have been worried when Uncle Charlie first enters Chan-wook Park’s “Stoker.” Just like the 1934 thriller, Charlie develops a unique relationship with his niece, but this setup is only the beginning framework for this thriller, which bears little resemblance to Hitchcock’s work.
Just after turning eighteen, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) loses her beloved father in a car crash. Living with her fragile, unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), India is intrigued when her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to live at the family estate. Evie accepts Charlie right away, and for a while, Charlie seems to want to seduce her. India is cautiously guarded at the beginning of the film, but she comes to need Charlie to fill the void that her father left. As they grow closer, however, India suspects that her uncle has ulterior motives. She also finds that she’s become increasingly infatuated with him.
India is the main character of “Stoker,” but audiences shouldn’t make the mistake of attempting to identify with her or any of the other characters. Played with admirable nuance and restraint by Mia Wasikowska, India is incredibly sensitive but is also casually cruel. Her character has a certain ageless quality in the beginning of the film. India seems more interested in death than in living; her favorite book is The Encyclopedia of Funerals, and she’s happy at the claustrophobic estate.
Matthew Goode is both seductive and vaguely sinister as Uncle Charlie. He carefully shifts between a substitute-father figure and a possible lover for India, but Goode never gets too caught up in the Freudian implications of his character. In some ways, it makes sense for India to become obsessed with this man who may be in the habit of making things die. Although the implications of this attraction are undeniably creepy, Goode still somehow maintains his seductive facade.
As Evie, Nicole Kidman doesn’t have as much screen time as the trailer implies. However, she wrings every bit of nuance she can out of this role of the haunted, unstable mother. Even when she’s in the background, the audience will notice her presence. The rest of the supporting cast, Dermot Mulroney and Jacki Weaver in particular, also knows how to make the most out of their small parts.
Known for Korean-language cult-film favorites like “Thirst” and “Lady Vengeance,” Park delivers a clever meditation on female sexuality in his English-language-film debut. The film offers refreshing insights, along with a heaping helping of metaphor and allusion. Fans of the director will probably be ready for his unique blend of art house scenes and disturbing horror, but even general audiences will be entertained by the horror and humor throughout. People with even a passing understanding of horror film criticism will also know and recognize how Park mixes sex and horror until the audience, as well as the characters, has difficulty separating the two.
Despite accusations of style over substance, “Stoker” is definitely more than the sum of its literary and film allusions and striking visuals. Film devotees may get a certain pleasure out of identifying all of the carefully placed references. Early on, Charlie’s preoccupation with family lines and blood bring the Dracula comparisons to the forefront. What the audience gets to figure out as the film progresses is whether India is going to be the prey or the accomplice.
Scenes that may have veered into camp, like the piano duet scene, are kept on track by the director’s steady hand. Even some effects that seem a bit cliché (the family home is overrun with spiders) provide a certain Gothic pleasure.
Wentworth Miller wrote the screenplay for “Stoker,” along with a prequel to the film called “Uncle Charlie.” Although Miller admits that part of his inspiration for the film’s script was Braum Stoker’s “Dracula,” he stated that it was never intended to be a vampire story. Instead, using Hitchcock’s film as a jumping point, he created a screenplay that is part horror, part family drama, and part psychological thriller. The script was voted by “Black List” into the 2010 top-ten list of best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. It lives up to this honor.
Audiences looking for realism in “Stoker” will ultimately be disappointed. This is a gloriously artificial film where most things are symbols or allusions to other films or works of art. People looking for a stereotypical thriller may also be disappointed; this is not a whodunnit flick. However, for those interested in Gothic, uncomfortable thrills that a film like this delivers, there is much to enjoy.