Director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) returns to his signature of revenge-themed stories with Stoker, a brilliant spring time distraction in the horror genre that is splendidly eerie as much as it is exquisite in its visual composition. It is more like a Hitchcock film than the paint-by-numbers fright film of the week that have polluted theaters on what seems like a weekly basis. It is also the first English speaking film for the South Korean filmmaker, who admits it was a difficult challenge working on a Hollywood studio film, but the Wentworth Miller’s story was sparse with dialogue and that allowed him to bring his distinct brand of filmmaking that made it undoubtedly his.
The star of Stoker is Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre), who plays India, a drab and droll teenager, who is mourning the loss of her father (Dermot Mulroney) after a tragic car accident took him away. The mystery surrounding his death are puzzling to those who know the family, but the events that transpire afterwards loosen the ground beneath India, as she realizes she’s been abandoned, imprisoned in a surreal world of fake pleasantries and the upper class. That is until the sudden arrival of India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shakes things up and for the first time, introduces himself to India and her emotionally unstable mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).
Charlie’s ambiguity and unclear intentions are unnerving and skin-crawling. His perfect, plastic smile is not to be trusted, but is ironically the thing that attracts Evelyn, whose grieving process isn’t exactly widely accepted. She treats her estate home like a prison, looking to escape its dreary enclosure, and is piqued by Charlie’s worldly travels and surprise drop-in. Evelyn begs him to rescue her from the painful reminders of her late husband and India’s brooding stares.
India is justified to be frightened by Charlie and his suffocating kindness but her curiosity is tended by his presence in their house. While Evelyn is busy throwing herself at Charlie, it’s India that has his interest, from the minute he stepped into their lives. He sees that his niece is missing the affection of her father, and is clearly lacking any compassion or connection with her mother. And whenever India needs something, he is there at the first moment of need while Evelyn is somewhere off sleeping.
Every year India receives a white box with a yellow bow, with a new pair of saddle shoes, which she adores and almost worships. One year she didn’t receive a pair of shoes, just a key, which she wears around her neck. She doesn’t know what it unlocks until the third act of the film and from that point on, Stoker is a relentless character study of family, nature versus nurture and watching the glass walls that encase India’s innocence crumble.
One of heroes of this haunting tale dies long before the story gets going, his efforts to shield his daughter from the dark secrets of their family expired leaving viewers with a shivering sensation at the end that something even more terrifying has been unleashed onto the world, left untamed and malnourished with love.
Wasikowska is absolutely mesmerizing–again–and is fast becoming one of the must-see young talents in the acting world. Here she eclipses Kidman’s greatness, and dominates her in every scene. She draws every viewer in with the slightest move and even when she doesn’t move, when insects crawl on her body, we tremble in fear for India. Goode’s performance is equally penetrating. His look into the camera violates the audience, and he preys on India, until she finally lets her guard down, when her terrifying suspicions are warranted, and she is thrilled by his presence, all at the same time. There is no turning back after Charlie and India perform a scintillating piano duet that is simultaneously erotic and disturbing–leaving its witnesses perplexed. That’s just the preview of what’s to come.
Stoker is neither the family drama you expect, nor the horror film you’ve ever seen before but that’s why we go to the movies and that’s exactly what makes it so good.