If you think about the plot too much, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker is found wanting and is really quite silly in many ways, but it is so stylishly presented that you are prepared to overlook any shortcomings. The first English-language film from the highly acclaimed Korean director is a real international affair, with Australia’s Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Jacki Weaver featuring alongside British actor Matthew Goode. Drawing heavily on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, Park has crafted a dream-like world of menace, simmering eroticism with characters who range from somewhat strange to completely bonkers. This is a stilted psychodrama-cum-mystery thriller that combines stylised composition – such as an abundance of close-ups and clever camera angles – with sublime sound accompaniment to create something unique and exciting.
The film is set mostly within the confines of the stately estate where widowed Evelyn (Kidman) resides with her sullen 18-year-old daughter India (Wasikowska) following the untimely death of husband/father Richard (Dermot Mulroney). At the funeral, Richard’s long absent brother Charlie (Goode) appears and both women soon find themselves drawn to their creepily charming house guest. Whilst Evelyn relishes the attention lavished upon her by Charlie and is oblivious to the strange goings-on since Charlie’s arrival, India suspects something is amiss and sets out to unravel the mystery. The problem is that India cannot control the primal feelings that Charlie unleashes in her and the pair develop an equally obsessive, near-incestuous bond that climaxes, quite literally, in the shower.
Weaver’s brief appearance as Aunty Gin leaves no doubt as to Charlie’s state of mind and, from this point, the tension mounts. Amongst the menace and malevolence that permeates the house, we are privy to fantasy sequences and flashbacks that serve to establish the bond between India and her late father and foreground what is to come. There is a heightened sense of style throughout as everybody looks impeccable all of the time; the costume and set design are fabulous and the cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon is stunning. Goode is suitably menacing as Charlie while Kidman is less effective as Evelyn, a self-absorbed, fragile character ripped straight from the Tennessee Williams playbook. However, it is Wasikowska who steals the show with a remarkable performance as the watchful, calculating and emotionally detached India.
Wasikowska’s rendering of India Stoker is far removed from her wanderings through Tim Burton’s Wonderland as Alice. In fact, it is Wasikowska’s performance that allows you to overlook the numerous shortcomings of the plot – such as the apparent lack of suspicion over the way in which Richard dies, which is a problem because we see the death in flashback and know that it could never possibly be seen as an accident. The film also riffs on themes and ideas from the likes of Psycho and Lolita and could easily have been a blood-soaked, sex-filled screamfest in the wrong hands. There is a sense of menace that permeates the film from the opening scenes – when Charlie appears in the distance at Richard’s funeral – that remains intact throughout, albeit verging on melodrama at times. Overall though, Stoker is worth seeing for Wasikowska’s performance and Park’s attention to detail; his precision is astonishing. The imagery is cold, detached and utterly mesmerising with every frame seemingly included only after extensive consideration. What the film lacks in pace and logic, it makes up for with mood and atmosphere.