Director Chan-wook Park has a reputation; he loves revenge. Two of his best films, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance are focused completely on the idea of achieving an eye for an eye. Stoker is a departure for Park, not least because it is in English as opposed to his iconic Korean locations and language. Stoker is not about revenge either; it is a psychological noirish suspenseful thriller. I use so many adjectives here because Stoker is quite challenging to classify.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) sports a demeanor somewhere on the spectrum between Wednesday Addams and Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice. She is not so morose as she is observant and suspicious. India is right to be suspicious, her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), just died in a car accident under mysterious circumstances. India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), chooses to grieve in a sort of bipolar manner. Some days she will sleep into the afternoon and lug around intense blood-shot eyes and other days she will cozy up far too close for comfort with Richard’s long lost brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode).
Charlie unexpectedly shows up at the funeral from…Europe maybe? India cannot get a good answer about why she has never met her uncle before. There is something ‘off’ about Charlie. He stares at India as if the two of them share a secret that they have never spoken of. India is not necessarily supernatural, but she has heightened senses of sight and hearing. She can see minute detail from far distances and hear any crack or groan throughout the Stoker’s immense and creaky house.
Showcasing these heightened sensations to the audience is what Stoker does best. The sound mixing is luxurious with loud pops when a hard-boiled eggshell is cracked or when India uses a pencil sharpener to remove some blood that somehow ends up on the pointy lead. India walking up wooden stairs in perfect time with a swaying metronome focused in the foreground is a feast for the ears. The art direction is also noticeably well thought out and used to play with the audience. The stark, oaken dinner table enhances uncomfortable dinner conversation and India’s sopping wet clothes form a puddle on the floor perhaps to make up for all of the tears nobody is shedding for her father.
With a name such as Stoker, one may think there are some vampire themes afoot; however, while the screenplay hints at some occult activity, there are no vampires or zombies to be found here, only a heavy gothic atmosphere. Everyone has such bleached white skin and piercing eyes you may be forgiven if you think they will melt in the sunshine, but there are many scenes outdoors in the bright light.
Kudos to Wentworth Miller for such a bold screenplay. You may remember Miller from his role as Michael Scofield on the TV show Prison Break. He played an engineering and problem solving genius on the show as he broke out of numerous prisons through multiple seasons. Here, he crafts characters in close-up detail yet you still have no idea whose motives are innocent or who is scheming.
There are a few scenes such as an unexpected and sensual piano duet that I will remember for the rest of the year. Stoker is easily the best film of 2013 through the first few months. The luscious style is equally matched and mixes seamlessly with the action on the screen. Chan-wook Park has created outstanding films before and he scores big with Stoker. It is a rich and rewarding ride.