Directed by Park Chan-Wook
Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Visionary. That’s a word tossed out far too often while praising the director of a film in any given award-baiting theatrical trailer or TV spot. Most of the time, the artist in question probably hasn’t done much to earn the praise, save for shooting some beautiful explosions or finding a nifty way to employ new film technology. But in the case of Stoker, whose trailer did indeed trot out the “visionary” ploy, the merit is entirely earned. Y’see, the director of the film in this case is Park Chan-Wook.
Chan-Wook, for those who aren’t aware (shame), is a Korean filmmaker responsible for such films as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, Thirst, and the outright masterpiece Oldboy. When it was announced that his first American production was under way, this writer was a bit skeptical. Foreign directors known for their unique voices being snapped up by US studios who homogenize their talents is nothing new, and I feared that the film in question might very well have knocked the “visionary” out of this visionary.
I needn’t have worried. Though it’s perhaps not on the same playing field as those previously mentioned films, Chan-Wook’s directorial prowess is in fine form with Stoker, presenting an artist who is truly at the top of his game. And while the Stoker screenplay may not be quite up to par with the film’s direction and acting, it’s still one of the best films this reviewer has seen all year.
The film begins with a focus on India Stoker (Wasikowska), a gloomy young girl who has just lost her father in a tragic automobile accident during her eighteenth birthday. Once the funeral has ended, she is introduced to her long-lost Uncle Charlie (Goode), who is in town for the funeral and to visit with India and her mother, Evelyn (Kidman). After the mourners depart, Evelyn decides to invite Uncle Charlie to stay with she and India for a while in order for them to better get to know the family they barely knew they had. All is well for a time, with India finding herself more and more taken with the unusual and charming Charlie, even as he grows closer to Evelyn. However, with the disappearance of their housekeeper and a visiting aunt (played by Jacki Weaver in a brief but effective role), India begins to suspect that something quite dark might be hiding behind Charlie’s all-too-friendly smile. Something which may either spell danger for her and her mother or awaken something similarly sinister in India herself.
The further I get from my initial viewing of Stoker, the more I believe I appreciate it. It’s a masterfully crafted thriller, elegantly directed and beautifully shot. And the editing! There are choices made in the presentation of this tale that are mind-boggling to behold, including some fascinating transitions that might have seemed gimmicky in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Add to that an immersive sound design and Clint Mansell’s gorgeously creepy musical score, and you have what is easily the finest crafted movie of 2013 thus far.
And then there are the actors. Mia Wasikowska, of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Lawless, does a wonderful job of carrying Stoker as the film’s lead. India is a tricky character to portray, one should imagine, as the audience’s sympathy must remain with her even as her actions become more and more alarming. India could’ve been a Goreyesque caricature that might’ve been hard to watch (let alone love), but Wasikowska’s performance ensures that we stick with India all the way throughout the story’s duration. Nicole Kidman turns in a superb performance as well, giving Evelyn a depth that pushes her past simply being the “cold, uncaring mother” archetype one might have expected from the character (especially after viewing the film’s trailer). Rather, Kidman shows us a woman who is eager for her daughter’s love but unable to cultivate it once given the opportunity. Evelyn is a woman starved for attention and adoration, and she willingly surrenders herself to the first person who shows her just that, regardless of the consequences. Kidman is at times vulnerable, infuriating, and downright chilling. It’s a great performance.
But perhaps the most impressive performance comes from Matthew Goode as Uncle Charlie. Goode’s portrayal dances with so many clichés (the polite, well-spoken psychopath is hardly a new trope in genre cinema), but he’s able to make Charlie seem fresh and wholly believable. His Charlie is both handsome and charming, even when he’s at his most dastardly. But when the façade drops, Charlie is childlike, bursting with emotion, and very, very deadly. That Goode can shift so seamlessly with the character without ever making Charlie seem like a cartoon is more than impressive. In a film full of great performances, his is the best.
It’s a shame that, for all the movie does well (does brilliantly), the screenplay isn’t quite at the level of the film’s other facets. Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t a bad script, not at all. The characters are fascinating, the dialogue is at times lyrical, and the tale itself is quite disturbing (with a few fun nods to Hitchcock along the way). But as fascinating as Charlie is throughout the bulk of the film, the big reveal concerning his backstory is a bit… mundane, given all that’s come before. Furthermore, the film’s climax is a bit too subdued, concluding the film’s conflict with a bit of a shrug. Other minor annoyances include a would-be rape scene that has a supporting character turning on a dime in the most jarring of fashions, while a flashback features a morbid murder that goes entirely unnoticed – until someone magically guesses at what must have happened. Still, those issues aside, it is a good screenplay (by Resident Evil: Afterlife and “Prison Break” actor Wentworth Miller), and I look forward to the burgeoning scribe’s next tale.
Twentieth Century Fox brings Stoker to disc with a transfer that does justice to the film’s gorgeous photography (courtesy of Chan-Wook’s frequent collaborator Chung-hoon Chung) and an audio track which perfectly captures the film’s bizarre and wonderful sound design. And the bonus features section assembled for this release is quite impressive as well. There are: a set of three deleted scenes, totaling about ten minutes of viewing time (featuring a few moments that shouldn’t be terribly missed from the film’s final cut); a thirty-minute doc focusing on Chan-Wook’s vision of the film, featuring most of the film’s principal cast and creative team; a set of slideshows – one featuring loads of beautiful stills from the film, the other showing off a neat promotion for the film inside of London’s Curzon Soho Theatre; a collection of featurettes focusing on various aspects of the film (production, characters, musical score, and the creation of Stoker’s stunning international poster); footage from the red carpet premiere, including a live performance of Emily Wells’ “Becomes the Color”; and a collection of TV spots along with the theatrical trailer. An impressive set of extras, well worth diving into for those that loved the film.
Ultimately, while Stoker might try the patience of some viewers with its peculiar directorial style and borderline slow-burn approach, this reviewer found it to be a marvelously crafted thriller, the type of which is far too seldom seen these days. If you’re a fan of Chan-Wook’s, or of skillfully directed chillers, you’d do well to see this film as soon as possible.
4 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5