Stoker is forty kinds of fucked up… and I mean that in the best possible way. We shouldn’t expect anything different from Park Chan-Wook, the brilliant, devious mind who brought us Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. For his first English-language effort, he conjures up a thick helping of American Gothic, and delivers the best film of 2013 so far.
He certainly doesn’t lose much in translation, retaining the same shuddering intimacy and ferocious plot twists that made Oldboy a modern classic. Here, he delves into a three-hand story of murder, incest and family hatred. At the center is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a cold and clinical teenager whose father dies suddenly in an auto accident. She and her mother (Nicole Kidman at her brittle and icy best) have circled each other warily for years, and with daddy gone, their old wounds flare up anew. That’s before the arrival of Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who India never knew but who seems to have a creepy fixation with her now-decimated family.
The three spend the whole film engaged in an unspoken battle of wills, with the reality of who and what Charlie is hanging in the balance. (If you know your movie history, you know that Uncle Charlies are invariably bad news.) Park drenches that in old-school Southern atmosphere, complete with sighing willows, buzzing cicadas and old grudges dealt with in the most expedient manner possible. India can’t deny her attraction to her handsome uncle, even as she fends off the mostly unwelcome advances of the local boys. Incest and resentment bubble under the surface, an equation that Park makes unbearably beautiful as he ratchets up the tension. We know the answers are coming – and frankly, we know what they will be – but the wait for them becomes a dangerous joy in and of itself.
Stoker’s real power lies in the unspoken, something that Park understands profoundly and which helps him make the transition to a new language without a hitch. We all understand the love-hate relationship between one’s kin; Stoker often expresses it in purely visual terms, letting us understand the lethal passions through hints or suggestions rather than overt action. Park uses stunning cuts and dissolves to shuttle back and forth in time, capturing India’s mindset in exquisite yet wordless strokes. Charlie jumps between cool and terrifying as the girl attempts to make sense of his presence in her life. A similar, if distinctive, dynamic exists with her mother, who in Kidman’s words is “starved for love” and doesn’t know how to share what little she has. They’re sharks, the three of them: their façade of humanity held together by the thinnest of strings. Stoker gleefully dances along those tensions, then dares us to guess where and when they will snap.
Park has a few surprises for us along the way, but his psychological grasp of the story extends to more than a few gotcha moments. Unlike his Vengeance films, he shies away from overt shock tactics, though his powers of suggestion here are plenty disturbing. More importantly, he invests it all with a richness that you don’t see much of in the movies. It’s the kind of film that rewards multiple viewings, not just in figuring out the plot (which keeps its business simple), but in parsing all of the deeper things that Park’s canvas seeks to convey to us. Filmmaking as a medium truly knows no international boundaries. Park speaks to us in terms that anyone can understand… or, more to the point, get creeped out by in marvelous and endlessly enjoyable ways. Oldboy’s legions of fans now have a new reason to celebrate.