If there’s one real negative to Stoker, it’s that its script is relatively simple and familiar. The writer is Wentworth Miller, an actor best known for his work on Prison Break. It’s not difficult to figure out most of the twists and turns that Stoker takes, in large part because the screenplay isn’t all that original. This is a complaint that you have after the film, not during, because Park Chan-wook’s direction is so strong, and the actors are so good, that you won’t be thinking about the mediocre screenplay. I mention it now to get the least exciting aspect out of the way now.
Stoker begins on the 18th birthday — the legal age in America; that’s important to keep in mind — of our young female protagonist, India Stoker. Her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), has just died, making her birthday a more sullen experience than it should be. Her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), wasn’t terribly close to her father, and by all accounts isn’t a great mother. Her idea of parenthood is to correct a “no” to a “no, thank you.” India appears to be even less emotional about the whole thing, taking the entire experience with a sigh of apathy. Something’s not quite right.
That feeling continues with the arrival of India’s Uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode). There’s something off about Good Ol’ Uncle Charlie, although whether that’s true and what is really causing this sense of uneasiness isn’t revealed until later. He essentially moves in to the upper-class family’s mansion, and always seems to be watching, listening. His inhuman charm is offset only by the sinking feeling that he’s waiting for an opportunity to strike, much like the way an eagle hunts its prey.
I mention an eagle because one is shown on a couple of televisions, signaling exactly what’s going to happen in an upcoming scene. Director Park Chan-wook — best known for the Vengeance trilogy — making his English-language debut, fills his film with these types of moments. Symbolic imagery used in ways that you won’t understand until after you’ve seen it. After a single viewing, you’ll want to see it again in order to observe what you’ve missed from earlier on. This is a film that rewards additional watches.
In addition, Stoker doesn’t cheat. So many thrillers these days hide any clues, ensuring that the audience won’t be able to figure out what’s going on. Stoker doesn’t do this — at least, not in a way that feels deceitful. Everything is there to figure out, but it might be hidden in more clever ways. The imagery, the cinematography, the editing — all of this is used in a way to disguise the reveals. You have all the information there; you just have to decipher it. You spend most of your time watching Stoker thinking about it and trying to figure it out. That’s in relation to both its plot and its themes, of which there are many for you to look out for over its duration, in particular the way that a sexual awakening/coming-of-age is linked with that of a sociopath — this is a gross simplification of what the film presents, by the way, but I’ve avoided as much spoiling as I can in this review.
There are points in the film when Chan-wook’s style has the potential to overtake the rest of the film. Here, I’m thinking about some minor instances of non-linear editing, as well as some gorgeous — absolutely stunning — slow-motion shots. I say “has the potential” because, while I can see it being a detractor for some viewers, they wind up serving a larger purpose, and are a joy to behold for most of the people who are going to see Stoker anyway. The art house crowd will get a kick out of them, is what I’m saying. However, the way that tension is built and then executed is something that everyone will be able to appreciate, and also something that Chan-wook does exceptionally. There are a couple of scenes that will linger for a long time in my mind.
Even though there are moments that come close to becoming self-indulgent to the point of hurting the final product, Stoker is cut down to the bare minimum, which works in its favor. There are no scenes in the film that don’t matter. The pacing is perfect. There isn’t need for any more, or any less, exposition. The dialogue is scarce but effective; any more would ruin the effect. This isn’t even getting into some of the less conventional methods by which the film was crafted, most of which remind us that we’re dealing with a director who completely understands film.
Directly after seeing Stoker, I was both puzzled and disappointed by the ending. I figured that if it had ended five minutes earlier, it would have been more effective. We didn’t need to see what essentially amounts to an epilogue. In further observation, it cements the ideas generated about the main character. Her arc is now complete, and there are no questions left about how she finishes the film. I still wonder if it would work as well without this last segment. But, then, you would also need a different opening, because the ending in the film ties everything together.
The language barrier was clearly not a problem for the actors, as two of the leads — along with a couple of strong supporting performances from the aforementioned Mulroney and Jacki Weaver — turn in what might be career-best work. Mia Wasikowska takes herself to a dark place that we haven’t seen from her before, while Matthew Goode is both charming and sinister, a perfect combination which makes for an effective maybe-villain. And I only say that Nicole Kidman has had better performances because, well, look at her filmography. Her motherly character is essentially what you’d expect from a poor parental figure, and she pulls it off effectively.
While I don’t want to oversell it, Stoker is one heck of an effective thriller, able to easily overcome any deficiencies in its screenplay due to fantastic direction and great performances. It’s more for the art house crowd than the general populace — and no, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — simply because of the bounty of creativity from its director, I feel like it might be able to be appreciated by all potential audiences. If nothing else, it will keep them guessing, creep them out, and provide an absolutely sensational visual experience. I definitely recommend Stoker.