Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode
We open with a young girl leaving her posh, convertible car at the side of the road. Behind it flashing lights flicker from a pulled up police car. The girl crosses the deserted road and enters a field opposite. The screen freezes, highlighting the stars of the upcoming film. The credits illuminate and erase depending on the flow of the girl’s dress, the dancing flowers, or the blowing wind. The young girl is seen searching the grounds of a large house. She lifts items, empties baskets, digs holes and finally finds what she’s looking for. She climbs a tree and nestled in the branches is a gift-wrapped box, labelled Happy Birthday. We then cut to a different place; a funeral. The young girl is there, looking drab and depressed. The funeral they’re attending is her father’s, the man who left her the present in the tree. As she mourns for her much-loved father she notices a man standing away from the congregation. She’s instantly intrigued – who is this man standing alone and watching her closely?
There’s a strange feel to the opening of Stoker. Jump cuts take us from different times and places and you have to concentrate to fully comprehend the narrative. This is director Chan-wook Park’s first English language film. He previously directed the cult classic Oldboy, which is soon to gain a Hollywood remake, and other dark Korean thriller films, all of which have been given strong critical appraise. Park instantly stamps his authority by bringing a visual flair to the opening sequence. The credits create intrigue and an instant feeling of unease.
At her father’s wake we meet India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a bland looking girl who barely cracks a smile. She’s pale, skinny and refuses to be touched. India’s mother (Nicole Kidman) is the polar opposite, with fiery hair and a constant (potentially) fake smile. Both women hide their grief in different ways. Whilst scouring the wake unwilling to speak to anyone, India is reluctantly introduced to a distant relative – her Uncle Charlie – who reveals that he’ll be staying with them. She recognises him as the one watching her at the funeral and instantly becomes infatuated. Whilst she initially fights against the lure of Charlie’s charm and mystery, India is drawn towards him, as is her mother.
Under Charlie’s influence, India finds herself becoming stronger. He holds power over her, a power she desperately tries to avoid but, without a father figure to support her, she feels lost and alone, which makes her vulnerable to his cool and sexy persona. Their slow relationship is initially intriguing but soon becomes a setback for the film. The build up takes so long that it makes the second half and the climax feel overly rushed; the audience have to race to catch up with the characters.
There are some good moments, where you have to dig a little deeper to appreciate the subtleties, but the contrived plot made it easy to pick holes in the overall film. A little more explanation behind the characters actions may have resulted in less confusion.
Park’s directing is very artsy and could be a little distracting but his choice of shots coincide with the deeper themes of the film, which actually make them work. The slower, quieter moments of Stoker feel a bit like a soap opera and it’s as if Park wasn’t entirely sure how to add his artistic flair to Miller’s script. The performances gave it a Hollywood movie feel, with strong acting from Wasikowska and Matthew Goode, but the many standstill moments make it feel like a B-movie.
Stoker is high on eeriness and tension but India’s overly fast transformation lets it down. Sadly the top notch editing isn’t enough to save this film. A better thought-out narrative would have done wonders for Park’s first attempt at the big Hollywood movie.