REVIEW: Stoker (2013)

Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker — PHOTO: Fox Searchlight.

Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy; Joint Security Area) — Screenplay by Wentworth Miller.

A handful of years before he directed all episodes of the excellent and underseen adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl led by Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgaard, Park Chan-wook made his first film in English with the Hitchcockian thriller Stoker, based on a screenplay from Prison Break-actor Wentworth Miller (under a pen name). 

Stoker is a Hitchcockian coming-of-age psychological thriller about India Stoker (played by Mia Wasikowska), an 18-year-old young woman, who lives with her unstable mother (played by Nicole Kidman), and it is set in the aftermath of her father’s death. At her father’s funeral, she first sees a mysterious man named Charlie (played by Matthew Goode) who turns out to be an uncle that India didn’t know she had. Charlie seems very curious about India, though, and he even tries to charm India’s widowed mother. As he announces his indefinite stay at their home, India begins to suspect that he has ulterior motives. 

When I first saw it, Stoker was a really nice surprise to me. For whatever reason, it was a film that originally had sort of flown under my radar entirely, so, when I finally watched it, it felt like someone had unexpectedly put a desired present into a Christmas stocking that was merely collecting dust. This one is a twisted and psychological mood piece that, like most Park Chan-wook films, is so elegantly designed, from arrangements in each frame to how individual scenes fit together.

It is meticulously designed with these fun digital transitions where blood or lighting from one scene can show up in another primarily for stylistic purposes. But also how Park positions each character purposefully in a shot so that it looks like a crack in a table is pointing toward someone. It is dark and it is erotic and it is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Park Chan-wook. On top of this, Matthew Goode captures that cold but playful confidence of his character excellently, while Wasikowska and Kidman’s performances also come through well. 

I don’t think it is entirely as good as Park’s best Korean films, though. While I think it is a relatively well-written story, it should be said that the film eventually becomes a little bit too exposition-heavy in a critical flashback sequence. I also think the relatively few scenes that feature India with her fellow students feature dialogue that is slightly awkward and generic. Indeed, the film is better directed and edited than it is written. This isn’t meant as an attempt to diminish Wentworth Miller’s competent writing (not at all), but rather an attempt of mine to emphasize that Park’s style is what ultimately elevates this into something relatively powerful.

Small quibbles aside, I think Park Chan-wook’s first English-language feature film is an engrossing little mystery with all of the traits that have come to define Park Chan-wook as a master filmmaker with breathtaking visuals, violence, and taboo subject matter. It definitely isn’t as good as his best features, but it is a solid English debut for a brilliant director. 

8 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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