South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English language debut is a sultry and languid noir set in the American Deep South. At the funeral of her father, who died on her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) learns that Daddy had a younger brother, her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who proceeds to ingratiate himself into the household. India’s mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is immediately taken with Charlie, and the sentiment appears to be mutual, but soon India’s previously dormant sexual yearnings are at last awakened by the presence of this charming, dapper young gentleman. As is often the case in Park’s films, however, sexual desire gives way to violence and the story takes a turn into considerably darker territory.
Mia Wasikowska gives a brave performance as the quiet, reclusive India who goes through a dramatic sexual awakening, and more than anything, Stoker is the story of her belated bloom into adulthood. Matthew Goode is handsome and smarmy enough to make Charlie a worthwhile foil, but Kidman could have benefitted from more screentime to really flesh out Evelyn into more than a lethargic, vulnerable southern widow.
Park brings regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon along for the ride, and the results are typically gorgeous. Every pouting lip, windswept lock of hair and suggestive glance is accentuated by Chung’s rich, caressing photography. Clint Mansell’s score further complements Stoker‘s aesthetic strengths, resulting in an ambience that positively quivers with untapped pubescent lust.
Despite Stoker being Park’s first director-for-hire gig, working from a script he had no hand in writing, there are nonetheless plenty of the director’s signature quirks on display, from the isolated protagonist, the blurring of family roles, to the deliberate, almost balletic pacing and even a prominent use of pianos and classical music. However, throughout the film, the imagery and symbolism feels clumsy and obvious, as if written by an angst-ridden teen desperate to express herself for the very first time.
In fact, the script was penned by Wentworth Miller, best known as the lead in TV show Prison Break, and between his inexperience as a writer and, perhaps, Park’s lack of confidence working in another language, Stoker struggles to find nuance and subtlety. In the second half, the plot falters badly, often defying logic to reach its desired climax, at the expense of plausibility and realism. Not that films necessarily need these things to succeed, but Stoker‘s opening act certainly gives the impression it is shooting for something smarter and more profound than what is ultimately reached.
For many, Park’s strengths as an impeccable stylist will be enough to qualify Stoker as a successful Hollywood debut – it is certainly better than countryman Kim ji-woon’s recent effort, The Last Stand – but those drawn to the project by its promise of mystery, eroticism and familial drama will likely be left unsatisfied by Miller’s adolescent writing. I recently re-watched I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK – far and away Park’s weakest film – which he made for his teenage daughter and her friends. While that film relies almost entirely on star power and fluorescent visuals to win over its audience, Stoker should fare much better with that particular demographic.
With its hip soundtrack – featuring a couple of excellent tracks by Emily Wells – lush visuals and female-centric coming-of-age narrative, Stoker has the potential to play well to angsty, antsy rebellious schoolgirls everywhere, particularly those demanding more bite than Stephenie Meyer could provide. However, for Park’s core fanbase – raised on a diet of kidnap, torture and revenge – it proves a stylish, yet somewhat vacuous experience.