Stoker: Catch it if You Can
Stoker is the US directorial debut of Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, best known in this country for his “revenge trilogy”, comprised of the thematically similar but otherwise unrelated films Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. I’m a big fan of those three titles, as well as his contribution to the anthology film Three… Extremes, but I’ll admit I wasn’t sure how he’d handle a more low-key American thriller. But the trailer grew on me each of the four times or so that I saw it in the theater, and despite Fox Searchlight’s baffling strategy of following up heavy marketing with a whisper-quiet limited release spread out over an entire month, we finally managed to find a theater nearby that was playing it. Was it worth the wait and/or effort to see? Read on and find out!
Not only is Stoker Park’s first US film, it is also the screenwriting debut of Prison Break star Wentworth Miller. That strikes me as an unexpected pairing, and its even more unexpected that I’d find myself using the term “Hitchcockian” to describe their combined output, but here we are. The script is a pretty good and slightly supernatural update to Hitchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, even down to the creepy uncle in both films (played here by Matthew Goode) being named “Charlie”. Park took that ball and ran with it, echoing Hitch in everything from shot construction and camera movement to the clever use of sound effects to transition between cuts. Speaking of which, if you have any interest in seeing this film (and you should), by all means make every possible effort to see it in a theater. I’m usually far more focused on the visual aspects of a movie than the audio (mostly due to my embarrassing lack of an at-home surround sound setup), but here they are absolutely on equal ground and the sound design is frequently brilliant, serving to further heighten the intensity of the film even through normally mundane actions such as brushing hair or peeling hardboiled eggs. Seriously, I cringed at the egg peeling.
And there are, to be sure, a lot of intense moments. While it’s not a story packed with the overt level of violence that Park is known for (despite the best use of a pencil on film since The Dark Knight), you can feel it bubbling just below the surface in almost every scene. There isn’t a single moment where anything feels at ease, or even where it feels like things ever have been. The relationship between India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother (Nicole Kidman at her longtime best) is far too bizarrely fractured to be explained even partly by the sudden death of India’s father or the just-as-sudden arrival of the uncle she never knew she had, and if there’s one thing the script left me wanting it was some hint of how their lives fit together even in the best of times. It’s not enough to impact the quality of the story at hand, but nevertheless it did leave me wondering what might have gotten cut out between page and screen, being the script’s main diversion from Hitchcock’s style of storytelling.
Interestingly, given the extreme personalities of the characters they portray, all three principal actors (and especially Wasikowska) turn in quietly compelling performances. The heated confrontations one might expect in a modern thriller never really happen here, manifesting instead in brief, surprising bursts of violence to punctuate the tension. As a viewer I frequently felt put in the awkward position of knowing what I was rooting against, but not quite what I was rooting for, which was a uniquely interesting sensation. Even as the credits rolled I couldn’t have told you if I got the ending I wanted, and I still can’t. What I do know is that Wentworth Miller is a really promising writer, and that Park Chan-wook’s talent is not in the least diluted by making films for a Western audience. Hopefully Stoker ends up with the wide release it deserves, and Park doesn’t find himself disillusioned by the often inexplicable antics of American studios.
Addendum: As I was putting on the finishing touches before publishing this review, I saw that Stoker is at least making it to one multiplex here in Cleveland this week. So perhaps there is hope for those without a nearby arthouse theater.