2013 - 99 minutes
Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Written by: Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver, Dermot Mulroney, and…Harmony Korine(?)
The gated Stoker estate consists of a French Provincial home set amid expansive, slightly overgrown and unkempt grounds dotted by miscellaneous statuary. The residence is big, cold and detached from the outside world. It’s one of those places that immediately looks as though it contains secrets. And so it does.
In a prologue that is actually the end of the film (only different) we first meet India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) walking amid a roadside cornfield and beautiful red flowers. Her somewhat cryptic voiceover tells us that we are not responsible for who we are. And then we get to see how she has gotten to this point, and to be who she’s become.
On the mansion grounds India searches for her 18th birthday present when news comes that her father has been killed in a terrible car accident. We don’t learn much about the patriarch besides the fact that he’s a successful architect, but the largely indifferent reactions from India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) tells us plenty about the family dynamic.
At the funeral longtime-absent Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) returns with a smile on his face and sparkle in his eye and it’s obvious he’s up to something. In short order he gains the devotion of the lonely Evelyn – an absent-even-though-she’s-there mother that wakes up in the afternoon with a cup of coffee and then starts in on the wine not long after.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a conniving Uncle Charlie – this iteration is not totally unlike the one from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt who also begins an uncomfortable relationship with his niece. In fact, the script from Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller doesn’t really offer anything groundbreaking, but the material is elevated by the performances, especially that of Wasikowska, and the direction from Chan-wook Park.
In lesser hands, Stoker easily could’ve been a bland, by-the-numbers thriller, but the first English-language film from the director of Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Thirst, is decidedly not standard. Shots are composed with purpose and he doesn’t just burn through exposition solely to setup the big “twists” or reveals. Much like India, we are taken on a journey – or a descent into something unnerving and unpleasant. After one particularly horrifying episode when some of the built-up family tension is graphically released, India takes a shower. But instead of washing the incident away, it just gets dirtier.
And we can’t take our eyes of the plunge into mayhem because it looks so good. Simple things like sharpening a pencil or dumping out a basket of tennis balls on a shabby court and watching them roll away are captivating. The big old house casts shadows on the characters – something is lurking, and it comes out. Spatial relationships of the players matter.
Though Charlie’s motivations for working his way into his niece’s good graces and plans for the future aren’t quite clear - and what is clear doesn’t necessarily make sense - under the guidance of Park everything is effectively creepy. Charlie and his story bring out India's dark urges and Park forces us – or better, makes us want - to watch. And by the time we get back to that cornfield and those red flowers, we see them much differently than we did 90 minutes earlier.