Movie Review: Stoker
Director: Chan-wook Park
Reviewed: 12 June 2014
jamesintexas rating-- ***
I admire when a film defies expectation and convention and truly goes off into dark territory. Chan-wook Park's Stoker offers a maddeningly weird take on a familiar genre with his signature visual style and aplomb. Like in his masterpiece Oldboy, Park embraces a tactile type of filmmaking that can make your skin crawl with haunting and fleeting images of beauty and violence. A dominant motif of an elegant spider steadily traversing up a character's leg contains more menace than a thousand scary movies.
The enigmatic teen India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) struggles with her grief after her father dies, and she meets her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who moves in with her and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The Stoker ancestral manse is a baroque marvel with weird outdoor sculpture and endless grounds of forest, a faded but still beautiful home employing housekeepers and servants. In some ways, the story seems transposed from the 19th Century into the modern age, but the claustrophobic nature of the film means our environment for the most part is the house (with occasional jaunts to the school or to town). The house has winding staircases, double doors, a cellar with swinging, eerie light bulbs overhead, impossibly long dining room tables, and a room with a piano. Stuffed animals abound as India and her father would frequently hunt together. The mood of the film is darkly menacing with the performances being strange on the surface because of so much that is to be revealed. India sees the increasing encroachment of her Uncle Charlie on their lives, and despite warnings, she seems drawn to solving the mysteries about her in a quiet, methodical way. The film regards its characters as smart and does not give them superfluous dialogue.
Park is such a master at directing that much of the film consists of misdirection and laying the foundation for faulty judgments. Scenes have a weird propulsion; an early shot of India rolling a hard-boiled eggshell on a counter top is jarring with its sounds. Mia Wasikowska has played Jane Eyre in the past, and her near-silent performance at times propels the film. We see things unfold as she does, and I never got ahead of the story in any way. Nicole Kidman is wonderful in the supporting role as the mother, conveying a simultaneous restlessness and a ruthlessness. Matthew Goode stands up straight, smiles perfectly, and epitomizes male perfection to both mother and daughter, offering a replacement for the father. I never entirely knew how magical or mythical or fantastical the film would travel, so the journey of watching it became a series of wonderments. I like its surprises and twists, including a visually stunning end sequence, and the word weird is most appropriately used here to describe everything about this complex mystery. Who would have thought a piano-playing sequence would be one of the most exciting of the year?