The announcement of Chan-Wook Park’s foray into an American production was initially met with reasonable discomfort. The past has taught us that renowned Asian filmmakers trying their hand outside their country of origin can disappoint, especially when Hollywood is involved (Kar Wai Wong, John Woo in part). But with little tidbits of information about Park’s new project called Stoker trickling in throughout 2012 many were somehow actually cautiously getting ‘stoked’. Being a dark and disturbing psychological thriller about a messed up family, it really sounded perfectly suited to him. As my expectations were building and building to a high point just before seeing it I was still unprepared for the undeniable quality of this, dare I say it, masterpiece I was about to witness.
The film opens with India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) mentioning how she’s always felt she has been able to see more than most people can see. At the start of the film her father has just been killed in a somewhat mysterious car-accident, and we witness her at the funeral with an observing and contemplative expression that stays fixed throughout most of the film. She definitely comes across as an odd and complex girl, introverted and not sociable at all. Or perhaps the recent incident has made her this way, we’re not sure at this point. Her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) is obviously a fragile woman who is trying her best not to let it show, desperately trying to communicate with India who had always been a lot closer with her father. The relationship between Evie and her husband had actually already been on shaky ground for quite some time, but Evie is all about keeping up appearances. At the funeral India is introduced to Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who she actually didn’t even know existed up until now. He is a handsome and mysterious man, carrying all kinds of stories of traveling and working overseas. He decides to stick around for a while and it doesn’t take long before he gets openly flirty with Evie. He tries to befriend India as well but she keeps her distance, because of anger towards her flirty mother, frustration about not having even know about his existence for 18 years, but also a gut feeling that there is something off about him.
As Stoker progresses, India’s feelings towards Charlie seem to become polarized. She becomes more and more certain about his ‘off-ness’, but simultaneously becomes eventually intrigued with his charm and perhaps some thoughts that they might not be so different deep down. Meanwhile it becomes clear that although Charlie is flirting with Evie, he really has his sights set on India. This film focuses in equal measure on her relationship to Charlie (which involves a lot of nods to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, where Charlie most likely got his name from), as well as her own psychological struggles and transition into adulthood. She is yearning for a freedom that would mean letting go of self-imposed constraints and perhaps embracing a bit of darkness herself (for a moment reminiscent of Aronofsky’s Black Swan), something that Charlie seems to have done a long time ago. While we witness India’s growth we also learn a few things here and there about Charlie’s past, which is equally intriguing. When India gets herself into trouble at one point and he helps her out these threads become fully intertwined and it starts building up to a climax of the love-triangle that isn’t a love-triangle between India, her mother, and Charlie.
The plot is daring and engaging from start to finish and it is almost hard to imagine that it came from the mind of Wentworth ‘that-guy-from-Prison-Break’ Miller, who didn’t have any writing credits to his name up until now. Props to him. But even more props all around, to everyone involved, because this film is virtually flawless in its exposé. I walked out of the cinema a bit breathless because WOW; this film is pure audiovisual poetry. We know that Park in combination with his cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung could shoot some fascinating pretty pictures (Oldboy, Thirst), but never this consistent in style throughout an entire film. In addition the music and sound design are interwoven in such an graceful manner that this movie actually has a living, breathing pulse. A certain flow and rhythm that make it an astonishing experience even if you don’t care for the plot at all. The only other films in recent memory that are similar in this regard, to me, are A Single Man and Drive. But as I explained, this film s far more than pure looks, the disturbing psychological portraits that we are confronted with are daunting. The acting is top-notch, one might say Wasikowska gives the performance of a lifetime, and Goode really hits the nail on the head as well. Despite their characters being so subdued, they are a delight to watch. I had very high expectations for this film and it clearly delivered. There was one turnaround moment in the film where I was kind of unsure if they had dropped the ball and would fall into unoriginal all-too familiar territory, but I was quickly reassured. As a whole, Stoker is fresh and original, it is polished and bold, it is haunting and beautiful, and thus undoubtedly one of the must-see films of 2013.