Though the name may fool some into thinking this macabre tale has something to do with Dracula or vampires, Stoker is instead the tale of young India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a smart and artistic (but reclusive) teenage girl who is struck by tragedy when her father passes away. Her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is lost in grief, until a long-absent uncle named Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode) suddenly shows up at the funeral, offering a helping hand through a hard time.
As Charlie gets closer to the Stoker ladies, India finds herself questioning her uncle’s character, his past – and soon enough, her own as well. And when a rash of murders start occurring in and around town, the Stokers find themselves in need of a serious “family meeting.”
It is a known fact that Korean director Park Chan-wook was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in his formative years – and that inspiration is on full display in much of Stoker. While the material is outright odd (at times uncomfortably disturbing), there is nonetheless a well-crafted brilliance to much of the imagery and story, which definitely distinguishes this film from the herd.
Park’s innovative direction (and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s interplay of rich and washed-out tones) is on par with the director’s work on films like Oldboy - yet another example of why international filmmakers are necessary fresh blood in the Hollywood studio system. To watch Stoker is to follow a game of visual intrigue; the mystery of Park’s camera choices are a through line in and of itself – along with curiosity (or tension) over how a scene or sequence will play out. In short: even though it has many classic Hitchcockian tropes, you haven’t quite seen this kind of interpretation before (for better or worse).
The script for the film was written by none other than Prison Break and Resident Evil 4 star Wentworth Miller – with some obvious contributions by Secretary writer Erin Cressida Wilson. Where Stoker surprises is in its thematically rich and layered examination of female sexuality and politics – a core arc that is wonderfully carried by the talent of Mia Wasikowska. India is a fascinating character, and even while her arc is often a confusing (uneven?) balancing act, Wasikowska makes it worth watching at any and all points – which is important in a story where none of the characters fit the bill of “likable” or “relatable.”
With the exception of a few key (and well-executed) monologues, Nicole Kidman is mostly a background prop in the film; however, as a true pro, she milks the role for all it’s worth. Evelyn is a composite of manic Stepford expressions and mannerisms that are at times hilarious, at times horrifying, and sometimes horrifyingly hilarious. Kidman proves to be a sturdy and supportive wall for the other actors to bounce their more dynamic roles off of.
Matthew Goode – often accused of being deadpan or banal – is a perfect casting choice for Uncle Charlie. With his bird of prey stare, disingenuous smile and oily delivery, he is that much more creepy and unpredictable. In some of the film’s more climatic scenes, Goode’s stoic demeanor is the perfect counter balance for the dark and twisted finale to this sordid tale. (I’ll stop there for fear of saying too much.)
Actors like Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook), Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures), Lucas Till (X-Men: First Class) and Dermot Mulroney provide some nice cameos, in order to push (or complicate) the main triangle between mother, daughter and uncle. While the screen time for these bit players may be brief, it is not wasted and everyone gets to make an impression.
As stated, the script offers rich metaphor and rumination on modern female sexuality in an intriguingly refreshing fashion. There are admittedly times when things get too “art house” and/or disturbing for the casual viewer – but fans of Park’s work will be just as entertained (in both the humorous and horrific fashions) as they are probably accustomed to by now.
This is one of those cases where it’s hard to talk about the film without saying too much. At the end of the day, Stoker is worthy viewing for those who are fans of its director or are open to exploring a very unconventional cinematic story, made in homage of classic Hitchcock. Those hoping for a thrilling murder mystery will find that this film is not that at all, as Stoker clearly (and explicitly) reveals its true intentions in ways you’re not likely to forget.
Stoker is currently playing in very limited release. It is 98 minutes long and Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content.