Stoker (2013) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA rated: R for disturbing violent and sexual content, some nudity and language
Running time: 99 min.

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver, Phyllis Somerville, Dermot Mulroney, Ralph Brown
Small role: Harmony Korine
Director: Park Chan-wook
Screenplay: Wentworth Miller
Review published June 6, 2013

Beautifully directed by South Korean auteur, Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), in his English-language debut, this surprisingly rich and artistically textured film manages to elevate its clever but not particularly deep screenplay into something truly special, indeed.  The visuals are truly stunning and poetically evocative, with an atmospheric elegance and fluid, operatic camera movements that could only come from a master craftsman at the top of his creative game.  Frequent Chan-wook collaborator Chung Chung-hoon's (Thirst, The Unjust) cinematography is like photography in motion, such that, even without dialogue, the film manages to speak volumes about the tone and tempo of these characters' dark, mysterious homestead.  The use of sound in particular is quite strong in this film, one of the more memorable merging of sight and sound to tell a story underneath a story in an English-language film since Atonement.

Known previously as an actor on the hit FOX TV show, "Prison Break", Wentworth Miller's screenplay contains echoes of Alfred Hitchcock's classic, 1943 thriller, Shadow of a Doubt, complete with an 'Uncle Charlie' character come to town. Other Hitch classics are alluded to, or perhaps deconstructed, including Psycho (murder at a hotel in an enclosed space), for instance.  The title itself evokes the author of "Dracula", just one of many other homages of this horror-thriller literate tale. Though set in the 'real world' there's just something other-worldly about the way this story is told, which Chan-wook uses as a strength in bringing forth his evocative themes of the links between sexuality and murder as two sides of the same twisted coin.

Mia Wasikowska (Lawless, Albert Nobbs) stars as quiet, withdrawn teenager India Stoker, whose father, Richard (Mulroney, The Grey), is found dead in a sudden car accident, and in her state of mourning, she spends less-than-quality time living in a dysfunctional environment from her more distant mother, Evelyn (Kidman, Trespass). Their lavish country home is soon visited unexpectedly from Mia's mysterious, globe-trotting (and previously unheard of) uncle, Charlie (Goode, Watchmen), who raises quite a few eyebrows from his seemingly devious behavior, not the least of which is the moves he appears to be making on his late brother's wife, as well as the perceived incestuous leers he is giving to his flowering niece.  When Charlie comes to the rescue of India, who is being bullied in school, the two blood relatives form a unique bond that awakens things inside the young woman that probably would have been best kept dormant.

Wasikowska plays India as perhaps a Tim Burton-esque figure (not surprising, for the actress who broke through in Burton's Alice in Wonderland), aloof but exotic, but makes her captivating in her bottled-up angst, despite her lack of many outward emotions.  When she does display any sense of feeling, one gathers they come up beyond her ability to control them, particularly in her sexual fantasies and desires that stem from Uncle Charlie's intense and dark protection of her.  Nicole Kidman is quite strong in these darkly comedic roles, and Matthew Goode is as captivating as he needs to be as the provocatively alluring Charlie.

While not every audience will be in tune with this very stylized, creepy thriller's wavelength, there's little denying that it leaves a lasting visual and psychological impression when it's all said and done.  Chan-wook's sumptuous style gets under your skin with his eerie visuals, which repeatedly throws images that aren't so pleasant for some to look at, such as spiders that crawl into clothing and blisters that are popped in front of our very eyes.  It's an icy cold tale of dysfunctional people who seem to only communicate through sexuality and bursts of violence, suggesting such matters are born in one's blood, and only by finding a way to channel that negative energy can one overcome such primal desires.  While not as brave or bold as Chan-wook's Korean film work, and a far cry from the classic Hitchcock it pays homage to, Stoker, like Black Swan before it (coincidentally, also scored by Clint Mansell), still resonates as a fresh, effectively off-putting (in the best of ways) psychological thrillers of its era.

 Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo