[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Stoker opens today in limited release. Click here to find out when the film will be playing near you.]
In Chan-wook Park‘s Stoker, the hunt is more rewarding than the kill. Park has beautifully crafted an unnerving, slow-burn mystery-thriller that delves into a bloodline destined to shed blood. In his English-language debut, Park takes his immaculate yet eerie style, and uses it to enhance a relatively simple tale of a disturbed girl who begins a bizarre and disturbing relationship with her recently-discovered uncle. Through Park’s lens and the tremendous performances of stars Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode, Stoker may not cut deep, but it slashes hard.
India Stoker (Wasikowska) is a quiet, withdrawn teenager whose father (Dermot Mulroney) dies under suspicious circumstances on her 18th birthday. At the funeral, she meets his long-lost brother Charlie (Goode), who has apparently been traveling the world for all of India’s life. Charlie decides to move into the Stoker estate, and become the proverbial man of the house, which appeals to India’s neglected mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman), and piques India’s curiosity. As her perverse relationship with Charlie develops, India transitions towards a violent and disturbing adulthood.
The world of Stoker is as fascinating as its lead characters. The Stokers seem to exist out of time as their costumes and home have appear to date back to the 1950s, but the story takes place in the present day. The family also spends their evenings having India play the piano for their entertainment rather than sitting in front of a screen. These trappings may not be subtle, but they’re bewitching and beguiling nonetheless. Park knows he’s dealing with incredibly strange characters, and the only way to keep the audience on board is to heighten the mood and the setting to match their macabre behavior.
India and Charlie’s actions and relationships go to some creepy places, but Park and his actors keep the tone consistent so that even when events become deeply uncomfortable, we’re never taken out of the picture. In one scene, uncle and niece do a special kind of bonding as they play the piano together. Through superb editing by Nicolas De Toth and gorgeous cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung, the scene comes alive as India and Charlie speak through the music (I’m not sure if it was an original piece or not, but it’s worth noting Clint Mansell‘s luscious and foreboding score).
The success of this scene and the rest of the movie is also due in part to the performances of Wasikowska and Goode. Both actors possess piercing eyes that look right through people, and it’s an essential trait for a film that revolves around characters who view the world as predator and prey (the story establishes early on that India’s favorite hobby was bird hunting with her father). Both actors possess a disconnected quality that makes them creepy but never obvious or off-putting. They also have to convey deep, complicated emotions beneath cool exteriors. Wasikowska and Goode are absolutely captivating as two people who have lost almost all connection with humanity, but find kindred spirits in each other.
As seen in Park’s previous films such as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, the director has a talent for turning the morbid and disturbing into something operatic and strangely beautiful. However, those movies ultimately have more depth and nuance than Stoker, which does attempt to explore notions of predestination, inheritance, and neglect. Despite reaching at these themes, the subtext of the film is never as rich or as powerful as the technical craft that transforms Stoker into something far larger. Sadly, Park’s direction is no match for where the story ultimately ends up, and the character’s motives become murky rather than intriguingly ambiguous. It is an unfortunate yet strangely fitting conclusion for a movie where the art of the hunt is more seductive than the precision of the slaughter.