From Korea’s most prominent exporter of beautiful bloody revenge, Park Chan-wook’s first stab at Hollywood film-making loses nothing of his keen visual sense and oddball charm in its change of language and locale. Much like Shutter Island’s take on hardboiled detectives and paranoid thriller, or Black Swan’s giallo genuflections, Stoker revels in a fairly traditional tale of “the dysfunctional family with dark secrets”, but makes it its own. When India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) loses her beloved father in a car accident, his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she has never met, appears at the funeral, and stays with her and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). But India is less than enamoured with her uncle’s attempts to strike a friendship up with his niece, nor with his more successful and suspicious seduction of her mother.
Embedded in a Southern Gothic milieu with a hint of Hitchcock, Park’s outsider view of Americana adds to the detached feel that courses throughout. There is a timelessness to the look – the clothes, the props, the cars, the Stoker household, all feel like they’re stuck in the past (for instance, you get high school kids on motorcycles hanging out at diners), modernity only creeping in out of necessity. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, steeped in rich, deep colours, while quick cuts, crossfades and montage imprint the vivid imagery with real style. And Clint Mansell’s score (as well as piano pieces by Philip Glass) is bolstered by intensified ticks of a metronome or a clock, the constant echoes of nature emanating from the woods and grass, and all manner of impressive creepy, atmospheric sound work.
But much of Stoker’s heightened quality is also down to the performances, particularly from the three principals, which are mannered to the point of precision. Wasikowska could easily have played the part as the stereotypical world-weary mopey moody teenager with morbid obsessions you’ve seen dozens of times before, and while those elements exist here, she somehow makes it seem fresh. She has a presence that is delicate but with a brooding power bubbling under the surface, someone who could float like a butterfly, yet sting like a bee (and I’m just as surprised as you that I’ve likened her performance to Muhammad Ali). Goode is perfect as the devilishly charming Charlie, unflappable and filled with mysterious purpose, drinking in his new surroundings and worming his way into India and Evelyn’s lives. Speaking of which, Kidman nails her fractured post-mourning state, emotionally susceptible, trapped in a kind of delicious delirium. Though they are all individually distinctive, together they make Stoker a peculiar joy to watch.
What is a tad disappointing though is the tale itself. Sure, some lines may feel like you’re being hit on the head by the script (by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, no less), but the slightly unnatural delivery makes it work, a film in which every sentence ends with a full stop and usually a tense pause for effect. Unfortunately, no amount of scenery-chewing can quite make up for the feeling that the script is more like a framework upon which to hang these performances, and to deliver the flourishes of a masterful director at work, than anything you can really sink your teeth into. Symbolism and themes abound, but the depth isn’t really there to back it up. That said, it is still capable of surprises, and still satisfying overall, but it is a shame the story is not as bold or inventive as the way in which it is executed.
Stoker is a peach of a film – ripe and juicy, with a hard stone at its centre. Subtle it certainly isn’t, but that’s where the fun of the film lies. For better or worse, it is very much in keeping with Park’s body of work (in that they are often stunning to behold, but not without narrative bumps), and indeed, by transporting his style to America, it makes you realise just how easy it is to take “ghettoised by virtue of being foreign language” arthouse-only-appropriate ‘world cinema’ talents such as his for granted when so few ‘Western’ directors have anything like his imagination. Here’s hoping it’s just the first in a new, and long-lasting, chapter in his career that bears even tastier fruit.