If you can avoid the trailer, then for God’s sake do because here’s a film that benefits from going in blind. Park Chan Wook’s Stoker is a thing of undeniable beauty; a carefully crafted piece of art, and there’s a word I don’t go throwing around too often. Essentially it’s a story about sexual awakening against a backdrop of dysfunctional family politics, but as with most great films, it’s not just the idea: it’s the execution.
The first half-hour may strain patience, but it’s worth it. Wook takes time to set up his near-epic tales, but after that slow start, the film begins winding tighter and tighter, releasing brief flurries of energy whilst maintaining the illusion of a melodrama. Here is a film horrific and deeply unsettling, without giving itself over to the horror genre. Early scenes of India (Mia Wasikowska) in the basement are thick with suspense, and moments of mystery call-up Hitchcockian influences.You’ll spend a lot of time wondering just what in buggery is going on until, finally, Wook delivers a fantastic phone-box realisation scene and the film, rather than falling into place, lifts.
Important to the horror aspect is Mathew Goode’s electrifying performance as India’s estranged uncle, a man who appears just after her father’s death and upsets the balance of the household. To be fair I had expected Goode would be on top form, but this is something different. There’s so much going on under the surface, so many silent and manipulative glances that you need a second viewing to catch the subtlety, Goode’s performance is the prize of the piece. Wasikowska’s India is something of gothic beauty also, shifting from what could have been a tired Burton character to a solid Angela Carter heroine. We should be hearing a lot more from her in the future if this is anything to go by.
As with every Clint Mansell soundtrack Stoker is a thing to behold, furthering those Hitchcock influences with epic strings whilst digging deeper into India’s slowly dawning mind state with heartfelt piano. Wook’s keen sense of style and image are fantastic , perhaps even a career best. The Gothic grandeur of the colonial house is captured with apparent ease, every frame looks like a painting, every image is a goldmine, there’s enough symbolism here to fill a hundred books. Repetition and explanation of certain details allows Wook’s film to achieve a bizarre nostalgic quality. This works hand-in-hand with the vicious and cold quality of the night-time sequences, allowing the horror to take shape.
Kidman’s performance fits in somewhere here; as a detail. And a fine one. Just as important as India or Charlie, Kidman’s performance is seductive, pathetic, and heart-breaking: her’s is the damaged thread that winds throughout, adding the most pure strain of heart-ache to Stoker.
Macabre, erotic, visually seductive, perfectly cast and performed, and flaunting a plot so thick with mystery and meaning you’ll feel your brain swell. Stoker is genuine masterpiece from a genuine master.
Director: Park Chan Wook
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Mathew Goode, Phyllis Somerville