Stoker is a hard movie to categorize, and that is a good thing. Too many times brilliant Asian directors come to America and then set out to make an American movie. A perfect example is John Woo, who was beloved for his Asian action thrillers but then ended up as just another American action director once he reached our shores. If anything can be said for Chan-wook Park’s American language debut, it is that he didn’t change a thing.
Chan-wook Park is best known in America as the director of Old Boy and the Vengeance Trilogy. One fear of many was that he would end up neutered when he took on an American movie, that the studio system would strip him of his style and eccentric symbolism, and that his American language debut would not be a true “Chan-wook Park film.” That couldn’t be further from the truth and Stoker is unlike anything most American audiences have ever seen.
Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a young girl whose father dies in a horrible car accident on her 18th birthday. While she is mourning, she notices a stranger watching the funeral from the distance and then later learns that the mysterious man is Charles Stoker, her father’s brother – someone neither India nor her mother ever knew existed. Her mother Evelyn, played with a strange Ice Queen Trash mixture by Nicole Kidman, has no relationship with her daughter and was always the odd duck when it came to the family unit.
The movie exists as a strange relationship tale, exploring the relationship between India and her mother, India and her uncle, India and her father in very important flashback scenes, and a disturbing relationship between Evelyn and her late husband’s brother. At one point, Evelyn states how great it was when her late husband was still young, while longingly looking at Charles. The entire movie is packed full of uncomfortable situations between this very dysfunctional family.
While the movie might be hard to nail down, it is very much a horror movie. India is an outcast, a girl with no friends who doesn’t know how to socialize with anyone outside of her now dead father. There is something off about her, and her father always knew what it was. This all ties in to her father’s own childhood and an incident that weighed heavily on his own mind. As the pieces of this puzzle begin to form, the audience can see through India’s actions, her uncle’s intentions and her father’s guidance through the flashback scenes, exactly what her dad was trying to protect India from for all those years.
Chan-wook Park is not a filmmaker who will paint the picture for audiences, spelling out exactly what they are supposed to believe. In this film, written by Wentworth Miller, the director shows the audience what they need to know, clues that they can then piece together in order to come to their own decision. Is Charles a Dracula type figure, as the title of the movie hints at? Is this a tale of genetically inherited traits, passed down the family line, impossible to escape? Or, at the end, is this just a horror tale of a monster’s destruction of a family?
None of this would work without the very strong acting of both Mia Wasikowska as India and Matthew Goode as Charles Stoker. Wasikowska is developing into one of cinema’s greatest young talents, almost a chameleon that can hide herself in a role. Look at her performances in movies like Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre and Stoker and you will see three extreme performances, not one like the rest. In this movie, she portrays the detached outsider who discovers her true self, and it is her transformation that remains most frightening in the film.
Matthew Goode provides one of the most unsettling and creepy characters I have seen in a movie in awhile. He comes in and switches between a charismatic smooth talker, and a complete sociopath on the flip of a switch. It is an amazing role from an actor who is just getting better and better as time goes on. Nicole Kidman is the only real letdown here, not a bad performance at all, but unlike Goode and Wasikowska, you see her as Nicole Kidman the entire movie. Jackie Weaver shows up for a small part and, as always, turns in a great performance as Aunt Stoker, while Dermot Mulroney is serviceable in the flashback scenes as India’s dad.
Heading back to director Chan-wook Park, we see a director who comes to America and loses nothing in the translation. This is very much an Asian-feeling film. From the start, with the amazing opening credits sequence, everyone’s names blowing away through creative freeze frames and smooth editing, you know this will be something different. The film uses sound and editing in a masterful manner, allowing the movie to just seep into your skin and involve you in a way that makes the entire endeavor an uneasy feeling. Every choice Chan-wook Park made in his editing and shot choices was spot on and it makes this one of the year’s true gems so far.
Stoker won’t be for everyone. This is not a movie that is easy to digest, and it takes a very difficult subject and presents it to audiences in a very matter-of-fact way, but it pays off beautifully in the end for those patient enough to see it through. Finally, an Asian master had made his way to America and retained what made him great to begin with. Stoker is a movie you won’t soon forget.