The modern psychological thriller genre is one more or less crated by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. With films such as Rear Window starring a wonderfully subtle Jimmy Stewart and the Grace Kelly vehicle Dial M For Murder among many others, the great director styled a movie category that is often about mood over substance. A specific tone must be created for the piece to be truly successful, one of constant foreboding and the threat of danger to come. Unfortunately, since Hitchcock’s demise few directors have managed to pick up the baton and carry on the work that he set in motion all those years ago. With Stoker, Park Chan-wook is certainly one of the few that have succeeded.
Stoker is the first film that Korean Park Chan-wook has both made in the West and in the English language. This doesn’t stop the director, who is probably best known for his Vengeance trilogy of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, from carrying on his trademark themes of revenge, retaliation and retribution. If he is less comfortable making a picture in a language other than his native tongue it certainly doesn’t show, as at no point does he miss a beat.
The plot follows self-imposed outcast India Stoker, in an incredibly measured performance by Mia Wasikowska. The film finds her on her 18th birthday, and deals, at least in part, with the end of her adolescence and transition into womanhood. Before she can celebrate, however, she is told of her father’s tragic demise. After the funeral, the enigmatic Uncle Charlie joins India and her mother, Nicole Kidman clearly relishing a role she was born to play. India’s late-father’s brother, played with quiet menace by Matthew Goode, is a man shrouded in mystery. Early in the film it is established that he is largely an unknown quantity to both India and her mother. Although instantly accepted and welcomed into their lavish home by her mother, India starts asking herself searching questions about their ‘new’ family member. Who is this man? Why did he suddenly appear after all these years? And has he got anything to hide? Hmm, the plot thickens.
The film is impeccably paced with it never feeling either rushed or too languid. One factor that aids this is its lack of dialogue. There is very little speech in the entire movie, with the bulk of character emotions conveyed by quick glances, long stares and shared, conspiratorial looks. At no point does Chan-wook feel the need to spoon-feed his audience and the finished result is all the better because of this.
The films success in creating the correct mood is helped in no small part by the superb cinematography of the talented Chung Chung-hoon. Chung-hoon has been Park Chan-wook’s director of photography for many years and has filmed the bulk of his work to date. Tonally the movie couldn’t be better served by his wonderful camera work. In scenes where India is nostalgically recalling the past the camera takes on a soft, warm luminosity, whereas when she is apprehensive or conflicted its shots become stark, sharp and sterile. The effect is understated, but works perfectly.
Performance-wise Stoker is near perfect. Kidman, as India’s neurotic mother, is marvelous. Her portrayal is one of vamp and aging temptress, with her sights set firmly on seducing her late-husband’s brother. It is a character comprised of many layers and idiosyncrasies making her completely believable, if not entirely likable. Through Park Chan-wook’s direction all his characters are comprised of many shades of grey rather than being markedly black or white, good or bad, which makes for a far more stimulating film than your average thriller.
Kidman’s is just one of many excellent performances in the movie with Goode’s Uncle Charlie being similarly engaging. The character exudes charm and poise, with just the slightest hint of danger buried underneath the veneer of sophisticated man-about-town. The role could’ve quite easily been one-note or pantomime, but in Goode’s capable hands Charlie never strays from being an amiable, yet ominous presence in the Stoker household.
Although the other actors are on top form, it is Mia Wasikowska who steals this movie as loner and outsider India Stoker. While her character rarely speaks, it is due to her skill as an actress that one is always aware of what she’s thinking. This is down to her use of the slightest body language and understated facial expressions. This is the young actresses most exhilarating performance to date, being at all times exciting, though exceptionally restrained.
Park Chan-wook’s Stoker is truly a masterpiece of atmospheric cinema, but does have some the occasional shortcoming. When certain character revelations are revealed, about halfway through the second act, this doesn’t have the punch or impact that one would like. The disclosure doesn’t feel like an adequate pay-off for such a skilled and proficient set-up. Saying that, this is a minor imperfection that, for the most part, is flawless filmmaking.
Stoker’s central motif is growing up, coming of age and the realisation of whom one really is. These themes are wrapped and twisted around its plot involving perception, whether things are actually what they seem. The movie attempts to create an atmosphere, coupled with terrific performances, that is at all times sinister and uncomfortable and is hugely successful in doing so.
Wasikowska’s India Stoker feels unintentionally akin to this generation’s Holden Caulfield. While she is at points unlikable, one never stop rooting for the character which is no mean feat. Hopefully for us this is not the last time Chan-wook and Wasikowska collaborate. While this film is outstanding, one feels that their best work is yet to come!