In his Hollywood directorial debut, Chan-Wook Park deconstructs the American gothic thriller and presents the mandatory elements of the hackneyed genre in fresh, compelling ways.
Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver and Dermot Mulroney navigate “Stoker’s” moral contradictions with mutedly claustrophobic intensity, but the Korean director of the Cannes-winning “Oldboy” never allows his actors to go off the thespic rails.
Given the fact that the 49-year-old auteur only decided to pursue filmmaking after watching “Vertigo,” Park’s Hitchcockian sensibility and smolder aren’t surprising. If you’re familiar with his cinematic oeuvre—from his so-called “Vengeance” trilogy (“Sympathy for Mr Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance”) to 2009’s award-winning “Thirst”—it won’t surprise you when Park lets his characters use a pair of scissors to shake viewers out of their apathy. “Stoker” is no exception.
As he explains, “I don’t enjoy watching films that evoke passivity. If you need that kind of comfort, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t go to a spa, instead.” But, relaxing in a spa will be the last thing on your mind when you watch how the contentious issues of a dysfunctional family unravel after Richard Stoker (Mulroney) succumbs in a baffling car accident, leaving his vulnerable wife, Evelyn (Kidman), and distant daughter, India (Wasikowska), behind.
Evie and India’s corrosive relationship takes another beating when mysterious Uncle Charlie (the dashing Goode), whom India never knew existed, comes to town and lives with them. But, the devilishly handsome gent’s arrival sets off tragic events that escalate after a number of red herrings—identical pairs of shoes, a birthday key—lead India to a stack of undelivered letters that contain disturbing revelations about her doting father’s seldom-discussed siblings!
As sinister as it is “dangerously” sexy, the perfectly calibrated production’s unsettling mood will keep you guessing as the murky atmosphere it’s anchored on simmers with a looming sense of danger. As Park steers his film into riskier territory, it overcomes occasional incoherence (Weaver, who plays the nervous Aunt Gwen, inexplicably checks into a rundown pension house) by hooking viewers with its narrative’s jagged but self-assured trajectory.
As evinced by the provocative portrayals of Goode, Wasikowska and Kidman, blood is thicker than water, indeed—but, would you love your family any less if their imperfections and calculated indiscretions threaten to overwhelm their good traits?