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STOKER – The Review

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The bloody soap opera STOKER is Park Chan-wook’s first Hollywood movie, and if you’re unfamiliar with the Korean director’s work, you’re in for a real kick. Park’s vampire opus THIRST and his acclaimed OLDBOY established the director’s cult status among fans of offbeat foreign crime films and while no one eats a live octopus in STOKER, he’s brought his novel style to this psychosexual thriller about the dysfunctional Stoker family. After her father (Dermot Mulroney) dies on her 18th birthday, India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) long-lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to visit. He’s welcomed into the family’s sprawling Connecticut mansion by India’s beautiful, unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), but India’s not quite as quick to embrace this relative that she never knew she had. Charlie’s wholesome facade hides sinister intentions and India recognizes something’s not quite right about Charlie from the start. While he seduces the forlorn Evelyn, it’s India he has his sights set on and those that get in his way, like Jackie Weaver as a nosy aunt, soon begin disappearing.

STOKER, written by actor Wentworth Miller, is a perverse riff on Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT, the 1943 thriller in which a young girl bonds with her serial-killer uncle (played by Joseph Cotton). STOKER benefits most from the heated quality of Park’s story-telling, the way he masterfully dials up the tension, the way his shots dissolve inventively from one into another. A visionary director is clearly in control here and it’s exciting to watch. Mia Wasikowska is well cast as India, her aloof expression hiding a fragile mental state that leads to several acts of shocking violence beginning with a pencil through the hand of a schoolmate and eventually going darker and bloodier than even her uncle. Nicole Kidman is excellent as the bored Evie, but the actress downplays her role to let the two other leads shine. Matthew Goode, an actor I was unfamiliar with, is a revelation as Uncle Charlie, looking like a dapper Norman Bates with a piercing stare and a slight smile just this side of sinister. The title is a nod to Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, but Goode’s Charles Stoker is no vampire, at least not in the fangs in the neck sense. One strange scene in which India and Charlie play the piano together, a composition by Phillip Glass that requires him to reach his arms around hers to play the high keys, is disturbing and oddly sexy thanks to these actors, Park’s cool direction, and the cinematography by Park’s long-time collaborator Chung Chung-hoon.

While the performances are spot on, it’s Park’s direction that is the real strength of STOKER. He gives us camera shots from below, above, off-center, forward tracking, backward tracking, long shots, extreme close-ups, together with a variety of different lighting effects in the best noir tradition. There’s a predictability in the film’s plot that’s quickly forgiven thanks to Park’s technique and the host of indelible images he leaves us with: a bloody pencil is sharpened in close-up, blood is splashed across flowers, a neck snaps with a sickening crunch, a spider elegantly climbs up India’s stockings, an egg is savagely peeled, and an unhinged flashback sequence involving a child, a lawn mower and a sandpit goes exactly where you don’t want it to. STOKER is a masterpiece of mood and style and is highly recommended.

5 of 5 Stars

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