Stoker is a highly intriguing film. It expertly combines various aspects and themes from family dramas, psychological thrillers, and horror films to tell a stunning story of murder and familial bonds. It also works as a lavish visual and sonic feast, giving the film various layers for enjoyment. And with its stellar cast, Stoker is a sumptuous film that lends itself to repeat viewings.
After Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) dies under suspicious circumstances (at least in the gossip circles), his mysterious, unknown brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears to help Richard’s grieving family. Richard’s wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is emotionally unstable at her loss, but finds comfort in the charming and seductive Charlie. But it is actually Richard’s daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) that Charlie finds most fascinating. India is an introspective young woman who was very close to her father. She is mistrusting of Charlie because his arrival coincides with the disappearances of her grandmother (Phyllis Somerville) and the housekeepers. While she keeps a close eye on Charlie, she also has to deal with the brooding and aggressive Whip (Alden Ehrenreich) who attempts to sexually assault her. When Charlie materializes to help her, she begins to see the real Charlie, while also learning insight about herself.
The Stoker family is riddled with secrets, both in the past and the unfolding present. Writer Wentworth Miller (yes, the same guy who starred in Prison Break) has riddled the film with enough clues for you to figure out what is going on, which makes the revelations that much more effective (and sometimes hard to stomach). Although the title may seemingly allude to Dracula author Bram Stoker, this is not at all a vampire film. The title uses the term “stoker” more literally as Charlie fuels India’s dark nature. The film is, however, inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt. That film also had a mysterious Uncle Charlie who was in love with his niece. While both films share some familiarity in the storytelling, Miller merely used the film as a “jumping off point” for his screenplay.
The stylistically-heavy direction by Chan-wook Park adds extra dimensions to the film’s theme. The story is told mostly through India’s heightened perspective. She hears every sound, played at a nearly deafening volume, from the malicious gossip of funeral goers to the sickening ooze and trickle of blood splatter. (When she rolls a hard-boiled egg on the table, you will cringe as you hear the bone-crushing crack of its shell.) Park also channels the visual aspects of the film. From the color palette of the Stoker’s home (a nice sea foam in the kitchen, yet a deep burgundy in Evelyn’s room) to the crisp, Banana Republic-style costumes, the character’s passions and personalities are easily established and expanded. They also provide a beautiful contrast for the Hitchcockian murders done with Quentin Tarantino levels of violence.
Park also uses visual cues to draw out the clues that Miller has placed in the script. India is constantly remembering various moments, quickly reinserted into sequences, as she begins to piece together Charlie’s past. While their repetition does become annoying, it also enhances the film and further expands the fascinating mind of India (so well captured by Wasikowska). Goode, too, does a great job of obscuring his motives in each scene, letting you guess what exactly is bubbling behind that charming smile of his.
Of course, Stoker will most likely incite those concerned with the teenage depiction of violence. As an 18-year-old, India is still too young to be “acceptably” violent in her actions. But Stoker is not glorifying the use of violence but exploring the nature of it. How much of India’s aggressive behavior is natural and how much has been stoked by Charlie or the bullies at school? Such questions should encourage expansive talk about youth violence instead of eliciting pure condemnation.
As previously stated, Stoker is a feast for the senses. And the many layers and revelations in the film will make you want to come back and explore the story once more.
"Stoker" opens March 1, 2013 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Chan Wook Park. Written by Wentworth Miller. Starring Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Goode, Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman.