For a certain type of moviegoer, “Stoker” is one of the most anticipated movies of the year.
A stylish Gothic thriller, the film marks the English-language debut of Park Chan-wook, the Korean auteur behind the cult hit “Old Boy” and the bloody and haunting 2009 vampire film “Thirst.” Chan-wook is a boundary pusher, and his films are often extremely visceral — violent, sexually provocative and emotionally raw.
On the surface, “Stoker” is a little more buttoned up and restrained than Chan-wook’s previous films, telling the story of a teenage girl named India whose mysterious Uncle Charlie moves into the family mansion after her father is killed in an automobile accident. But there are strong emotions roiling beneath the surface, and the film builds to a thrillingly deranged conclusion — perhaps not quite as deranged as the final scenes in “Old Boy” and “Thirst,” but certainly in the same ballpark.
The film centers opens just after India (Mia Wasikowska) has learned of her father’s death; at his funeral, she notices a handsome young man watching the proceedings from a hill. This handsome young man turns out to be Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who charms her frosty mother (Nicole Kidman) and makes himself at home. Mia takes an immediate dislike to Charlie; she didn’t know that she had an uncle, and regards him warily. Charlie is friendly, but we know from the opening scenes that there’s something wrong with him, although we don’t know quite what, and that he poses a threat. India is also a bit odd: Her heightened sense of hearing enables her to hear conversations and sounds that nobody else can, and she has no close friends. Her only close relationship was with her dead father (played in flashbacks by Dermot Mulroney), who taught her to hunt.
“Stoker” is a modern-day reworking of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film “Shadow of a Doubt,” but with some unexpected twists. Since the girl in “Shadow of a Doubt” sensed that her long-absent uncle was a menace, I wasn’t surprised by the fact that India found herself unable to warm up to Uncle Charlie. But “Stoker” differs from “Shadow of a Doubt” by SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! SERIOUSLY! in that India and Charlie might share a real bond — that they might have a similar enthusiasm for killing. They are uncle and niece, after all, linked by blood and genetics.
At a certain point, I began to realize that “Stoker” was less a thriller than a grimly disturbing coming-of-age film, somewhat akin to “Carrie,” in which a gifted young woman begins to realize her potential for wreaking havoc and destruction. (Wasikowska actually looks a little bit like the young Sissy Spacek.) During the second half of the film, I found myself constantly recalibrating my expectations. What makes “Stoker” suspenseful isn’t Charlie’s propensity for evil, but our dawning awareness that India might follow him down the same sociopathic path — that she might choose to use her powers for evil, rather than good. It’s this tension, between India’s good and bad selves, that often gives “Stoker” an electrifying charge, and as the film progresses we watch in shock and anticipation as this innocent teenager transforms from a potential victim to a partner in crime to an independent, adult woman in full possession of her terrible powers. “Stoker” is the story of India’s awakening.
“Stoker” is a lurid film, and occasionally it threatens to fly off the rails — to go so far over the top that it becomes laughable, rather than frightening. The sexual attraction between India and Charlie struck me as a bit much — the film is plenty weird and disturbing without incest — and a scene of India masturbating in the shower after killing a schoolmate is pretty ridiculous. However, “Stoker’s” ludicrous moments are easily redeemed by the film’s fantastic performances (Goode and Wasikowska are both excellent; I also enjoyed Jacki Weaver’s brief appearance as an aunt) and Chan-wook’s talent for depicting the beauty in the macabre.
“Stoker’s” influences are too numerous to count (the film’s title is an obvious nod to Bram Stoker, the author of “Dracula”), but two that jumped out at me are actually TV shows: “True Blood” and “Dexter.” India, with her heightened perception, is not unlike “True Blood’s” Sookie, with her ability to hear other people’s thoughts. And her relationship with her father is not unlike Dexter’s relationship with his stepfather, who recognizes that Dexter is a budding young serial killer, and trains him to target bad people, rather than good. Given that “Stoker” was scripted by Wentworth Miller, the star of TV’s “Prison Break,” perhaps the film’s similarities to two of cable TV’s more popular shows are not a coincidence.
In the end, “Stoker” is a flawed film (as all films are), but it’s the sort of film I wind up grading on a curve, overlooking its problems because the good stuff is so good. I’m still not convinced that Park Chan-wook has made his masterpiece, but I eagerly look forward to whatever he does next.
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