A few months ago, I wrote about the wave of South Korean filmmakers coming to America. That wave reaches much higher tide with Stoker, a slow-churning, delicately crafted psychological thriller that crawls under your skin. The film is directed by Park Chan-wook, whose Catholic vampire movie Thirst and bloody revenge operas Oldboy and Lady Vengeance have won him a reputation outside his homeland. His first English-language movie, Stoker bears the hallmarks of his Korean films: deliberate pace, gorgeous photography, burnished colors, deceptively warm sunlight, and an atmosphere where the air itself seems charged with the anticipation of violent death. Park’s formidable, frigid talent makes him a distinctive voice in world cinema, and it’s well worth seeing him play on our turf.
The story begins with India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), whose father has recently died in an accident on her 18th birthday. The handsome man whom India spots observing the funeral service from afar turns out to be her father’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), who announces at the wake that he’s moving in with her and her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) for the foreseeable future. India finds this disconcerting, since she was previously unaware of Charlie’s existence.
Fun game to play during the movie’s first hour or so: Who is the creepiest Stoker? Is it the waxy and repressed Evie, who is taking her sudden widowhood a couple of shades too well? Charlie, whose suave good looks and worldly sophistication are offset by his glassy-eyed, robotic manners? Or is it India herself, who dresses like Emily Dickinson in saddle shoes and broods like a female Hamlet, radiating resentment toward everyone?
The plot echoes both Shakespeare’s play and Hitchcock’s thriller Shadow of a Doubt, but even Hitchcock might have quailed at some of the places this movie goes to. The sexual tension that develops between India and her uncle isn’t even close to the most twisted thing here, though it leads to a late scene with a pair of high heels that will make shoe fetishists pass out in their seats. More sinisterly, a string of people disappear soon after Charlie’s arrival, including the old governess (Phyllis Somerville) who blanches when she first sees him.
Between attention-grabbing scene transitions (freeze-frames, wipes, the strands of Evelyn’s hair turning into blades of tall grass), the director builds a gathering air of dread with unorthodox camera angles and other formal tricks. The cracking of a boiled eggshell sounds like the breaking up of an arctic ice shelf, and Park unsettlingly leaves way too much space in the frame above India’s and Charlie’s heads during an early conversation on a staircase. Somehow it makes sense that the tasteful Federal-style Stoker mansion has a basement straight out of a third-rate slasher flick, with peeling paint and flickering fluorescent lights.
The script by Wentworth Miller (the former star of TV’s Prison Break) could have benefitted from a few more specifics, and the movie occasionally lapses into absurdity, as in a contentious piano duet between India and her uncle Charlie (with music by Philip Glass). Still, you can readily see why the script appealed to Park, who has long been obsessed with the capacity of ordinary people to do unfathomable evil. The unveiling of the Stoker family secret provides no catharsis but rather unleashes a monster upon the world.
The movie takes place in present-day Connecticut, but it was filmed in Nashville, the décor and costumes are decades out of date, and none of the principal actors are Americans. It all makes for a story that’s unmoored from a specific time or place. The three actors are excellent, with Kidman — who’s at her best portraying forbidding mother figures — nicely underplaying a late, splenetic monologue directed by Evie at her daughter. (“Personally speaking, I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.”)
However, the real star turn comes from the tiny, pale-skinned Wasikowska, who goes all dark and hostile here in a manner you wouldn’t suspect from the star of Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre. Even before the movie’s bloodshed starts in earnest, you can tell that the boys at India’s high school are making a bad mistake when they decide to mess with her. When the nice boy from school (Beautiful Creatures’ Alden Ehrenreich) turns out not to be so nice to India, Wasikowska makes the boiling over of her character’s rage into something scary as hell. Like the film that she’s in, her performance is a study in primal impulses just waiting for the right moment to be set free.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Wentworth Miller. Rated R.