Director: Park Chan-Wook
Cast: Matthew Goode, Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman
Running time: 99 minutes
After India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.
Calling your film Stoker is a bold move, and done with every intent on making the audience think of Bram Stoker, Dracula and all other types of monster tales. It certainly serves as the perfect setter for the frame of mind to be in for this dark, gothic tale. Director Park Chan-Wook is well known for his use of visceral, nasty images, for holding shots for a lot longer than feels comfortable, and for getting right and close on his subjects with contorted camera movements, and one of the first thing you notice with Stoker is just how uncomfortable it is to watch. Within the first ten minutes we see spiders crawling up legs, blisters popping right up by the lens, and eggs being crushed around on a table with an invading and strangely unbearable menace. He gets inside our heads with piercing sounds as we hear every breath, every gulp, every creak, every bite, every sniff and every whisper. Somehow even the slightest things are deeply unsettling. Chan-Wook has tapped into the fact that there’s something we find very uncomfortable about being so intimate with the characters, to the point where even a breath puts us on edge when it feels like they’re breathing on us.
It’s rated 18 by the BBFC for “strong sex, violence and sexualised violence”, yet there are actually very few scenes of anything particularly graphically violent or sexual. There are moments of both, but it’s more regularly the implication rather than the physical action, and it’s the atmosphere that’s so crushingly dark and foreboding that earns it such a high certificate – entirely appropriately.
There’s a distinctly Hitchcockian vibe going on in the film, with writer Wentworth Miller (yeah, the guy from Prison Break) citing the great director’s movie Shadow of a Doubt as a direct influence. The plot is essentially the same, with only smaller details changed, and even Mathew Goode’s Uncle Charlie shares the same name as Joseph Cotten’s sinister character in Hitchcock’s professed favourite of his own films. Evoking Hitchock is always a gamble, but in this instance it paid off. Importantly it pays homage to Shadow of a Doubt rather than simply remind us of how much better it is.
There are further parallels to Hitchcock through Goode’s truly chilling performance. He bears a striking resemblance to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in Psycho, both in looks and personality. Both characters hide their inner psychotic workings under a veneer of boyish good looks and immeasurable charm, and at a glance look like normal, pleasant young men, but through their eyes you can see something hidden. Some evil working inside.
Mia Wasikowska, too, is electric as troubled and erratic young India. Her performance is one of intrigue and mystery, in that we never quite know quite what’s going on inside her head, and there’s a cold, ambiguous edge that suggests maybe she’s just as crazy as Charlie. The only performance that I felt didn’t work so well was Nicole Kidman’s. I’m finding it tough to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it, but it just felt a little wooden and contrived. Where Goode and Wasikowska were completely magnetic and believable, she just seemed to be trying too hard to keep up.
Chan-Wook has made his entry into Western cinema with a punch. One of the quotes from the trailer is: “Like nothing you’re expecting”, and I can’t really think of a better way to put it than that. It’s an uncomfortable and thoroughly unsettling watch, but at the same time utterly captivating.