A film review by Craig J. Koban April 10, 2014 

RANK: #25


2013, R, 98 mins.

India Stoker: Mia Wasikowska / Uncle Charlie: Matthew Goode / Evie: Nicole Kidman / Aunt Gwendolyn: Jacki Weaver / Richard: Dermot Mulroney / Mr. Feldman: Harmony Korine

Directed by Chan-wook Park / Written by Wentworth Miller

STOKER is not your usual horror film in the sense that it places far more emphasis on being a cerebral experience by honing in on psychological dread.  Its whole macabre and deeply unsettling atmosphere is what sets itself far apart from other splattergorium efforts that mindlessly flail blood and gore at the screen.  It showcases a sad and dysfunctional family unit – suffering from the recent death of its patriarch – that slowly and methodically begins to unravel in disturbing ways with the intrusion of a long estranged member.  The manner that STOKER blends actual horror with a more introspective focus - that tip toes between pathos and dark comedy at times - on the tormented mindsets of its characters elevates the film well beyond other similar genre efforts.  

The film marks the official American directorial debut of revered South Korean director Chan-wook Park, who previously made a strong name for himself in his home country making JOINT SECURITY AREA, THIRST, and THE VENGEANCE TRILOGY.  It’s pretty abundantly clear relatively early on in STOKER that going “Hollywood” has not stunted his bravura visual style, which mixes imagery that traverses from startling beauty to primal viciousness with a painterly eye.  It’s refreshing to see a talent like his not held back by making a studio controlled film, because his affection for darkly exquisite compositions that compliment an already depraved storyline are copiously on display here to behold and admire.  Very few films as of late work as resoundingly well just on a level of the haunting imagery it presents on screen as STOKER does. 

Complimenting the film’s magnificent visual sheen is its script - from Wentworth Miller, an actor-turned-writer that I’m mostly familiar with as a performer on TV’s PRISON BREAK - which works like a jigsaw puzzle that gives us glimpses of scenes – out of chronological order – and then forces viewers to later process and place them with the larger framework of the overall story.  The film opens in what might be the past, but could very well be the present, only to be revealed to be the former as the plot progresses.  We meet a glum, sad, and mostly non-communicative 18-year-old girl named India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) as both she and her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) are attending the funeral of her father (Dermot Mulroney).  India really held her father in the highest esteem, whereas her relationship with her mother is suffocated by mutual insecurity with the other (that, and Evie is a chronic boozer that can barely look after herself, let alone a child).  



Someone immediately catches India’s eye while at the funeral - her father’s younger brother, Uncle Charles (Matthew Goode), who apparently was away abroad for so many years that India hardly knew who he was growing up.  Something, though, just seems really, really off about Uncle Chuck: He seems hardly broken up by the death of his older sibling, not to mention that he has a detached stare and coldly welcoming grin that effortlessly lures in people.  Charlie decides that he would like to move in with Evie and India, something that India does not initially want, but that her mother seems to welcome, mostly because Charlie is handsome, charming, and mysteriously alluring to her.  The longer that Charlie infiltrates India’s already troubled little family circle the more she becomes hopelessly cast under his ethereal spell.  Worse yet, as she discovers a startling dark side to Charlie, she too begins to flirt with her own barbarous yearnings buried deep with her psyche waiting to come out.  

STOKER is a pure example of cinematic and literary homage.  Yes, the title alone certainly alludes to the last name of the very famous author that wrote DRACULA, but the film has its sights set squarely on the films of Hitchcock, more specifically his SHADOW OF A DOUBT, which features many obvious character and thematic echoes in STOKER (both films have an Uncle Charlie and both featuring a charismatic sociopath among other things).  Miller’s script here shows a real affinity for acknowledging and referencing films from the masters of the past.  He also slyly understands the standard accoutrements of the genre he’s exploring and further imbues them with his own eccentric sensibilities.  What’s ultimately compelling in the film is its absorbing character study of both Charlie and India, which deals openly with incestuous leanings from both of them while not going out of its way to tip off what is the real attraction between the pair.  India herself remains fascinatingly elusive and enigmatic as a persona in the film: Is she emotionally sick girl or a vulnerable one that’s being maliciously used and abused by Charlie?  Or more chillingly, is she a combination of both?  

Park’s beguiling visual style emphasizes all of the relationship dynamics in the film.  So many individual moments appear like hallucinations or a dream, only to later reveal themselves to be part of reality.  Park makes ingenious usage of bold colors, unusual compositions, slow pans and zoom-ins, and surreal transitions and dissolves.  Images as far ranging as a long-legged spider – a recurring visual motif – crawling up India’s leg or even the more sensationalistic vision of blood being sprayed on a white-pedaled flowers have a lingering exquisiteness, not to mention a sensationally realized dissolve where a character’s hair morphs and dissolves into blades of grass.  Some have complained that Park’s oh-so-clever visual style is perhaps a bit too self-indulgently clever, but complaining about a film like this for being an exercise in style when it primarily exists to be an exercise in style seems a bit redundant.  Some films succeed on the aesthetic level of what a visionary director of confidence simply puts on screen for us to marvel at. 

The performances are integral to the overall effect as well.  Kidman has to difficultly bridge the gap between playing a woman driven by shameless self-satisfaction and maternal responsibilities (she reveals both extremes during a late, searing monologue in the film about the nature of motherhood that’s about as scathing as they come).  Mathew Goode has become the go-to actor for playing unmitigated psychos that bury their sickening impulses behind an inviting and handsome GQ cover model façade.  STOKER, however, is owned by the presence of Wasikowska, who seems to churn out one great performance of rich variety and complexity right after the other (see THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, JANE EYRE and LAWLESS).  Her porcelain and natural beauty make her seem like an unlikely fit for this material, but she nonetheless brings a raw authenticity to India’s sinister descent into unbridled madness. 

STOKER requires the utmost patience in viewers, which is its strongest selling point.  It’s not bothered by taking its time revealing all of its labyrinthine narrative complexities and forcing audience members to place all of its splintered pieces together to create a meaningful whole.  STOKER builds towards a virtuoso final scene where you’ll smile with deep satisfaction over India’s journey…or you’ll recoil in ghastly horror for what transpires (which is only discreetly hinted at in the film’s opening).  Ultimately, the film leaves us with one disturbing nature versus nurture conundrum: Was India born into the world already hardwired to be a twisted soul or did she just simply need some prodding for good ol’ Uncle Charlie to lead her afoul?  STOKER becomes all the more enthralling and distressing for how it never answers those queries.  

  H O M E