Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut is a creepy and stylish psychological thriller which combines tense Hitchcockian mystery elements with distinctly horror orientated flourishes.
Mia Wasikowska stars as quiet and reclusive India Stoker, a teenage outcast who lives with her unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) in their secluded mansion after the tragic death of her father. As they are mourning their loss, the dangerously charming character of Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) enters into their lives. Charlie is the mysterious brother of India’s deceased father and neither mother nor daughter seems to know a great deal about him. Nevertheless Evelyn invites him into their home and he immediately sets about ingratiating himself with both women. From the moment of his arrival we sense that Charlie has an ulterior motive for his actions and that something dark lurks behind the friendly smiles and seductive manner he adopts towards Evelyn and India. As he grows closer to them both, hints are dropped as to his true nature and things rapidly escalate towards a shocking conclusion.
All three lead actors are on great form but its Goode and Wasikowska who really steal the show. Wasikowska perfectly captures India’s pale naivety and blossoming sexuality, while Goode is a wonderfully sinister screen presence whose hypnotic charms are used to great effect. From their first meeting, it’s hard to tell whether India is scared of her Uncle or strangely attracted to him. Scenes such as the two of them plying piano together are filled with a sexual undertones and India’s sexual awakening and passage into womanhood is undoubtedly heightened by the arrival of her Uncle. The unsettling relationship that is for so long hinted at between uncle and niece is especially disturbing and as with so much about this film, it’s not so much what we witness on screen that is so sinister, but what is alluded to and hinted at beneath the surface.
Park Chan-Wook shows a keen directorial flare for ramping up suspense and my earlier assertion that the film contains distinctly Hichcockian elements is one worth repeating. Just like the maestro himself bathed his thrillers in sexual tension and created complex characters whose true nature remained unclear, Chan-Wook does similar here. The sexual frisson is perhaps far more explicit than in a Hitchcock movie, but Charlie in particular is a classic Hitchcockian villain, an effortlessly charming character whose dark intentions are for so long implied and then shockingly revealed.
The film is also peppered with very deliberate camera angles and composed shots which give the movie a distinctly stylised aesthetic. The use of small sounds such as the crawling of a spider, the brushing of hair or the sharpening of a pencil are deliberately heightened so that they taken on a far greater meaning and contribute brilliantly to the sense of creeping dread that runs through the movie.
The whole film operates in an almost dream-like alternative reality based at the Stoker family home. The odd outsider comes and goes, for instance Jacki Weaver’s Auntie Gwen whose concern for India’s safety sets alarms bells ringing, but these characters spend very little time in the sanctity of the Stoker abode. The three family members go about their business almost cut off from the outside world and when members of that outside world do probe too deeply into the Stoker’s private life, it doesn’t tend to end too well.
There are some moments of violence in the movie, but to go in to any greater detail may ruin too much of what makes this movie so great. While you will not be surprised that a movie such as this contains these moments, it’s their sudden arrival which makes such a telling impact. You’re never quite sure when they are going to appear and what guise they will take.
Most viewers will no doubt have formed a good idea of where the movie is heading before the truth is revealed, but the beauty of Stoker is in the slow-burning tension that builds and builds as we wait for the exact details to be exposed. It’s a dark and atmospheric thriller and both Wasikowska and Goode deserve special praise for two truly captivating performances.
Stoker is out now in cinemas.
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