Director Park Chan-wook makes his English language film debut with Stoker a psychological thriller centered on a high school girl (Mia Wasikowska) who has a distant relationship with her mother
Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) then suddenly looses her father in a car accident.
Park who is well known for his particular take on violence from films such as Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance presents his take on the dysfunctional American family.
India Stoker is a loner with a keen sense of nature. She sees insects and animals in slow motion, hears wind rustling through trees, fluttering of the wings of a fly or scurrying of a spider across the floor at a higher decibel. Her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) noticed his daughter's unusual talents from an early age and took her hunting where they would spend hours on end waiting for the perfect moment to fell their prey. Her mother Evelyn could not compete with that bond. Now after Richard's death the two women are alone on their big country estate.
Although deeply in touch with nature India has the complete opposite experience at school. A very good student with a great eye for art she has no friends and is often taunted by the boys in her classes. She has two reputations: she does not speak nor does she want to be touched. However if confronted she will stand her ground.
The situation at the Stoker residence changes when Richard's brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears at the post funeral reception. Charlie is wordily has seen all corners of the globe picking up distinct skills in each of his ports of call. Learning this information is new to India, as she did not know until the reception that her Uncle even existed.
Longtime Park collaborator Chung-hoon Chung handles the cinematography duties a standout element of the film. Despite it's gothic ingredients Chung does not present a dark looking film it is instead extremely bright. The colours leap off the screen including the scenes at night, which are bottom or back lit in such a way to highlight the natural light. The sun is so bright in the daytime that characters often shield their eyes or require sunglasses. The appearance of and wearing of sunglasses is a popular theme throughout the piece.
After an initial avoidance India starts to become intrigued by her Uncle but at the same time her intuition tells her that something with him is off. Being a hunter use to being still and unseen, she moves around the estate often on the edge of conversations and exchanges amongst her family members and staff. India begins to develop a picture that Charlie is not what he seems which is heightened further when her Great Aunt Gwendolyn stops by and is genuinely uneasy in Charlie's presence.
Editing is directly used to tell the story. In one great sequence India is sent to the basement to put ice cream in the freezer. She tilts then releases an overhead light causing it to swing. Each arc cuts alternately from India downstairs to Charlie and Evelyn circling towards each other upstairs. Later as India combs her mother's hair they discuss her hunting trips with her father. The brush strokes of Evie's hair morphs into the long grass in a field by a lake where India and her Dad are stalking and waiting for the precise moment to fire on some ducks at the waters edge.
Sound is very important in a movie that focuses on heightened senses. The buzz of crickets and the swish of people moving through the tall grass are constant features of the film. In a flashback to Charlie's youth the depiction of a buzzing bee moving in slow motion outside a car window is a memorable moment. The score features a very haunting song for Charlie's introduction. The other main piece strongly attached to his character is a sad low whistling tune. Charlie and India also play a duet on the piano which is a key moment in the film as it marks the point where they become intellectually and physically close and represent a distinct shift in Charlie's interest from Evie to India.
The production went through many different casting changes as it made it's way to the screen but it in the end they got it right. Nicole Kidman pays the kids ruined my marriage role well. She is very direct and blunt with India. Some would even say at times she is cruel to her daughter. A lot of her best instants are a mix of disapproving looks entwined with longing gazes plus the vacant stare of a mother who is not quite present. Eva Wasikowska is more than capable in the lead role playing a character who knows she's different due to her fascination with all aspects of nature including seeing a wounded creature taking its last breaths. Matthew Goode is excellent as Uncle Charlie a charming man that attracts others easily enabling him to distract them from his true nature.
For a first film in a foreign tongue Park has delivered a gloriously twisted sinister production. The movie has several film noir elements and is based on the Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt with Joseph Cotton in the Uncle Charlie role. I definitely recommend the film and although the calendar just turned to March Stoker may hit some top ten lists at years end.
*** 1/2 Out of 4.
Stoker | Park Chan-wook | U.S.A. / U.K. | 2013 | 98 Minutes.