I’ve never seen Park Chan-Wook’s previous work, but if it’s anything like Stoker, his English-language debut, then I may be taking a foray into his filmography in the near future. The acclaimed director, known for his provocative “Vengeance Trilogy” in his native South Korea, blends his penchant for difficult subject matter with Hitchcockian tension, to create an utterly arresting film awash with gothic kookiness.
After the untimely death of her father Richard, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and her unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) find themselves in the company of Richard’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode). His mysterious existence is made all the more so by his unexpected presence after the furneral, and under the guise of caretaker, uncle Charlie stays with the family. India, both suspicious and enamored by the uncle she never knew, begins to cultivate her peculiar nature from the dark secrets of the Stoker clan.
The principle plot of Stoker is also its most ancillary. Above all the sinister glances and horror/thriller beats of the film is the exploration of adolescent female sexuality, and the symbolism is anything but subtle. In any other genre the blatant girl-to-woman imagery would seem like overkill, but the use of horror/thriller to explore female sexuality is intriguing to me, given the complicated relationship between the two. It’s the perfect mesh of subject and medium, as both are chock full of societal taboos. Long after the central plot was concluded, I found myself thinking about the inner layers used to flesh out the skeleton long after.
Park is known for being a highly stylistic director, and Stoker puts this craft on full display. Some may consider it a distraction, but never have I seen style so effective in both aesthetics and storytelling. This film is literally a puzzle for all the senses, but I particularly enjoyed the use of sound to convey tension in the strangest of ways. You’ll never want to hear a person sipping wine from a glass again. Park’s unconventional style also makes it hard to place Stoker in any one period of time. India is a Victorian Wednesday Addams, Evelyn a mid 20th century society housewife, and Charlie a sly modern J. Crew model, a family of seemingly disjointed individuals living in an equally eccentric manor. It creates an otherworldly atmosphere that only adds to the erratic nature of this disturbed family. In fact, we rarely traipse beyond the Stoker estate and when we do it is only to show how much they don’t belong in the world around them.
The performances in a movie like Stoker are critical. Kidman and Goode are both solid in what are common roles in films of this genre. It’s really Wasikowska’s India that steals the show. She plays India like a girl who doesn’t give much thought to the world around her because she senses there is more to uncover about herself before she deigns to enter it. And when she does, it’s only to test and experiment the depths of what she is capable. Confined as a child to hunting trips with her morally preceptive father, she later delves into more “adult” forms of expression when Charlie shows up. The relationship between India and Richard is a clear motive on Richard’s part to get right what was wrong in his own relationship with Charlie. Add the nurture, and the nature might be suppressed. It’s difficult to play the love India had for her father against the feral energy she saps from Charlie, but Wasikowska nears perfection.
I could go on and on with Stoker, because the surface really is just the surface. The film has much to say on the ideas of family, child and adolescent development, and entering the world as an “adult” when you are only 18. Wasikowska’s performance as India also makes this unique thriller an early favorite for the year.
Stoker is now playing at the Ritz East.