Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver
Running Time: 99 mins
Release: 1 March
Stoker (the film) is a little like Stoker (the family). Like the film’s characters and the family home, Stoker (the film) is attractive, dark, controlled but sometimes a little playful.
The film begins with a shriek, and then a voice-over, as teen-aged India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) ponders what makes her different and we see a few close, obscure images that hint at violence. Then it flashes back a few weeks and we’re at her father’s funeral. The patriarch died in mysterious circumstances, leaving behind his daughter and wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Enter Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who claims he’ll be staying in the rambling family estate for a while, much to India’s suspicion.
Stoker is not perfect, but it’s a pretty good examination of life as an adolescent. India is different from the other kids, quieter and darker, but she’s not quite an adult yet. She overhears tantalising snippets of adult conversations that she’s not part of, and (like the audience) she’s never told the full story until it’s too late, and is forced to try to piece together the family picture from fragmented jigsaw clues.
Charlie Stoker is the mystery. He’s suave, handsome and always genial, but—in India’s eyes—he’s also suspicious and sinister. Why doesn’t he eat his own food when he cooks family meals? Why does he take such interest in India? And why hasn’t she heard about her father’s brother until now?
As a Hollywood debut from Park Chan-wook, Stoker is pretty much what you’d expect: a compromised, but entertaining work from the director of Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Thirst. It’s far more conventional than anything he’s done before but he still manages to show his craft and address dark themes. It’s a gorgeous looking film (shot by Park regular Chung-hoon Chung), as Park lovingly shoots the opulent family home, then lifts up the rock to see the icky things crawling beneath.
The script by Wentworth Miller (yes, the star of Prison Break) is engaging, but he does over gild the lily somewhat. Stoker almost—almost—cracks under the weight of its own metaphors: Food is deep fried as conversations become more threatening; Charlie looks at his young niece while gardening and praises the malleable soil; India’s late father was a hunter, patient and meticulous; and a cuckoo is shown onscreen when Charlie enters the family home. Even the name is a tribute to the Dracula author and the disturbance that Charlie brings.
Still, despite the deliberate pace and the bludgeoning metaphors, Stoker has a lot to offer. The performances are all pitch-perfect: Matthew Goode (Watchmen, Leap Year) is charming and menacing in equal measures; Nicole Kidman is brittle and ambiguous; and Mia Wasikowska has never been more effective, giving an intelligent, nuanced performance as the conflicted, sensitive girl with an untapped dark side.