Written by Wentworth Miller
Directed by Park Chan-wook
New in theaters this week from Fox Searchlight Pictures is Stoker, the English language debut film from Korean master filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). The intense horror/thriller written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller packs a stellar cast with Mia Wasikowska heading up the center of the story. With Chan-wook delving into the English market, the question remains, is his unique style and vision compatible and adaptable for an English audience?
After India’s (Wasikowska) father, Richard Stoker (Mulroney), dies in an auto accident her Uncle Charlie (Goode), who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her emotionally unstable mother (Kidman). But there is something not quite on the level with Uncle Charlie, something from the past has kept him from being a part of the family for India’s entire life, and that is not lost on the house matron and India’s Auntie Gin (Weaver). But instead of feeling outrage or horror the tormented and bullied high school girl becomes increasingly infatuated with her Uncle, and begins to feel urges and actions that she never knew she had come bubbling to the surface.
Stoker is one hell of a debut from Park Chan-wook. Continuing to press forward with his trademark brooding atmosphere, pierced periodically with jarring violence, Chan-wook has crafted an unconventional yet beautiful looking story. The script provides a solid base for Chan-wook to jump off from, staging even the most mundane and generic dialogue in subtly dramatic tones that increase the ominous feel that permeates the film. The script does pack a sexually charged coming of age story that Wasikowska grabs with gusto. Her India goes from dour and reclusive, a girl whose best friend is her father and would rather go hunting with him than shopping with her mother, to a confident and determined young woman set upon a different path. Chan-wook does nothing to subtly connect this other ‘awakening’ to her sexual awakening, he smashes his audience over the head with it like a cast iron frying pan. Matthew Goode delivers the fully formed silent menace that was only touched upon in his Ozymandias performance from the Watchmen back in 2009. And Nicole Kidman chews scenery in a deliciously camp performance.
On top of the heaps of violence there is a lot of stunning imagery on display here. The transitions are gorgeous and some of the most beautiful put to lens this year or last. Some of Chan-wook’s favorite imagery does creep into the film as well; his spider motif does show up here as does his fascination with unconventional weaponry, but this helps to add to the visual flair. The Stoker house is a visually compelling estate with lush grounds, including stones and large boulders that may have more than decorative purposes, old style French doors and all the creaks that come with a house of age. The Plantation type feel is lost once you enter the dungeonesque basement, complete with iffy lighting that India swats as she walks like low hanging school decorations.
The film will not go without controversy though – it will not be universally loved. Chan-wook does not dilute his vision to appeal to North American audiences. His audacious and bombastic connections between female sexuality and violence, culminating in a shower sequence that very well may disturb quite a few, and may have some screaming misogynist and sexist charges his way, and they may not even be wrong. But ultimately it is the same girl who ends up aware, and even gaining the upper hand, by the end of the film. Of course means to an end is hardly a defense but the seeds of India’s behavior are sown from the very beginning of the film, through another classic Chan-wook piece of imagery in a gift box. Seeing these exploited and maneuvered by Goode’s Charlie through the film you can see how the malleable India could be formed and shaped by his deeds into something more sinister than she may have if her father had lived and was around.
In the end Stoker may not be a film for the masses. The unflinching portrait of a girl discovering the true meaning of her family and their dark secret, as well as discovering herself along the way, will be unsettling for some and possibly offensive to others. But for fans of Park Chan-wook, this is the film they have been praying his English debut would be. For fans of experimental and ground breaking cinema, who aren’t afraid of some violence mixed in, or fans of Park Chan-wook’s previous works, Stoker is a must see.
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