Stoker is a movie you need to see twice: The first time, to absorb what you’re watching; the second time, to marvel at the artistry on display. Not a shot is wasted in this atmospheric gothic thriller which borrows liberally from numerous Hitchcock movies but specifically 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt. Every frame and moment in this film has been designed with such control and eye for detail that you’ll want to know the meaning behind its composition. What’s more, every sound effect, every color choice and costume change tells a story. Some may lambast the film as an exercise in style over substance but considering the quality of the style, this is at worst, the work of a master at the top of his game.
Stoker centers on India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a troubled 18-year-old with a Wednesday Addams-like quality to her. When we meet India, we learn that her best friend Robert, her father (Dermot Mulroney), has been killed in a horrific car accident. Her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is an ice queen who doesn’t understand her nor is interested either. When India’s enigmatic uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), someone who she never knew existed, shows up at her father’s funeral, unannounced, she is simultaneously intrigued and suspicious of him. For one… why hasn’t she known about him until now? Why is he so nice to her? And why do people around him keep disappearing? Answering these mysteries forms the groundwork of the plot of Stoker, but this film isn’t much about India’s Nancy Drew antics, but rather about what it means to become an adult and coming-to-terms with who you are.
Stoker is the American debut of Chan Wook Park, the Korean auteur whose previous films include Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst and international sensation Oldboy (which is getting the fancy Hollywood remake treatment this fall by Spike Lee). Park’s films are characterized by their bold, no-holds-barred physicality as well as their immaculate framing and Stoker is no exception. Although the script (written by Prison Break alum Wentworth Miller) may lack the complex narrative pull of Park’s previous films, the filmmaker makes up for this lack of finesse by coats the film with plenty of mood, tension, and macabre, which he accomplishes by numerous long takes, establishing shots and unraveling the plot at a deliberately slow pace.
He’s helped by his actors who are all game for this brooding affair. Wasikowska, who’s building a reputation as the new go-to girl to play sulky teenagers, perfectly projects the frustration, confusion and rebellious nature of India. It helps that she shares a sublime chemistry with the steely Goode. But it’s Kidman, in an underwritten role, who delivers the most complete performance as a woman lost in her vanity, blissfully ignorant of the nefarious things surrounding her.
While it lacks the finesse of his Vengeance trilogy, Stoker is nevertheless, a stylish gothic parable that stands as a remarkable American debut for Chan Wook Park. His masterful eye for detail, composition, and storytelling with panache is a more-than-welcome addition to an industry deplete of unique voices.