Sunday, March 17, 2013

Stoker (2013)


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.  


  1. Ah, this looks so incredibly good! Won't be a while until it's released where I am, but this is one I'll be seeing on the big screen I think.

    I expected vampiric undertones as well with that name - in fact, that's what caught my eye. But with all the details you've pointed out, such as the heightened sensations and exaggerated appearances and Gothic feel I don't think I'll mind too much.

    I had no idea Miller wrote the script! I was a huge fan of Prison Break (the first season, anyway) and I knew he went on to write scripts but that was it. This just gives me more incentive I guess.

    And I might check out the other two films of Chan-wook Park's you've mentioned. I love explorations of revenge.

  2. Careful, unlike Stoker which is psychological, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance are mucho violent. However, if revenge is up your alley, there is no better movie than Oldboy.

    I had no idea Miller switched it up to go write scripts. I was shocked when I saw his name pop up on the opening credits.

  3. Charlie, I read your review and chose this to see over some of the other junk that is out there. You pick out the elements that show this in it's best light but I found it way more affected than I had imagined. In the end, I did not care about what happened but there were things that were well done in the way the film is shot. I wanted to see this when the trailer first appeared, but for some reason did not warm up to the idea until you words. I'm glad I saw it but I feel very indifferent about it as a story.

  4. I notice I like this film much more than almost anybody else out there. I hope I explained why but there are just some movies you see that really strike a chord. It happens a few times a year where a movie I do not expect very much from comes out of nowhere and blindsides me. Stoker did just that. Any examples of movies that did that to you?

  5. Last year I thought Looper was going to be that way but it turned out a lot of people liked it the way I did. Everybody has guilty pleasures, but seems different than what you are talking about. It's not just that you enjoyed the film but that it touches you in some way that is memorable. I'm going to have to think on this and get back to you.

  6. Haaaa, I finally watched this film, and I think I'm with you on being a huge fan of it.

    It was - it was just so IMMERSIVE. I know that the exaggerated audio was meant to indicate India's heightened senses but I think that was one of the ways in which the film pulls you into her world, both literally and figuratively.

    And you're right about that piano duet. I think I held my breath through it - it was so bizarre, and very well-acted.

    The whole thing was a work of art really. It is a very 'slow' film but it somehow felt like the slowness contributed to the way the film submerged you in India's story.

    I just wonder about Charlie though: considering his situation, how did he find out about India? Even if his brother told him about her birth, would he have admitted India's 'special' quality to Charlie, when that was the very reason he isolated himself from Charlie? I dunno. The script is great, but it doesn't answer that. Actually I think the unanswered questions are one of its strengths but...

    anyway, sorry to come babble here, but after seeing it I've been meaning to re-read your review with my viewing experience in mind.

  7. I love that you took the time to find this film! We're getting toward the end of the year and Stoker is still way up there on my Top 10 list. So glad you liked it and that it had an impact on you. I love comments like these.