Many of you will be familiar with director Park Chan-wook’s via his previous works Oldboy, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance or his segment ‘Cut’ in 3 Extremes among others. Where Stoker fits in that spectrum of film is pretty murky because while it shares some of his previous signature techniques and visual cues, it exists on its own as a unique work that is damn near impossible to classify neatly. This is definitely a good thing for the film itself as you’re kept off guard essentially from the onset. But, because of the hazy, seemingly random ways that things intersect and happen at times, you’re left trying to play catch up looking for meaning where there might not be any.
Some writers I greatly respect have said you should go into this one as blind as possible – I tend to agree. I think that bringing up films it reminded me of in terms of plot would do a disservice to not only your viewing but to the film itself. It doesn’t fit right next any film I can think of in any sort of clean way so I figure I’d rather leave that where it sits. So, with that in mind I tread carefully forward.
First things first, this film is absurdly beautiful looking and absolutely compelling to watch start to finish. It reminded me a little bit of The Virgin Suicides in the sense that it is so awash in color and palatable air and crispness offset by haze (often in the same shot) that you’re often rendered dizzy by the effect. Park’s skill as the director is only enhanced by the cinematography (by Chung-hoon Chung) executed on the head of a pin: the exacting way the camera moves about the main home setting and making normal situations look dynamic is quite remarkable. I know I’m carrying on about this but I just could not get over it. These two should always work together – a director’s vision streamed through a true artist with the camera.
Next, the performances. All three of the main leads India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman) and Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) are just fantastic. In particular, I was taken aback by how well Kidman did – there is one monologue midway through that was arresting. She is, as a matter of fact, a good actor. On a secondary level, the wonderful Jacki Weaver does just fine (and masks her thick Aussie accept well) along with Dermot Mulroney who plays India’s father.
All I’ll say about the story/plot is this: India’s father dies in a car accident at the start of the film which sets her world off kilter as she and her father had a special bond. This tumult is further complicated by the arrival of her mysterious Uncle Charlie and the initial nervous reactions of family then spiral into a tense and uneasy series of events that get more and more serious as we learn who these people really are. So that is about all I’ll say about it, story wise. You get the feeling that things are off with these people, each in different ways. But the extent, what it means and where it will go are better left to the film itself to lay out. I have my theories about it but I’d rather just ‘let the mystery be’, as it were.
One negative critique I do have in the pacing in the first part of the film – while being hypnotized by the camerawork and all else, I didn’t initially notice the snail’s pace at which things happen. This goes away and things hit a nice clip but early on, felt draggy in spots. This might have been heightened by an inappropriately chatty audience for a screening like this (memo to people behind me: your conversation is meaningless, go have it somewhere else) but I do feel it was appropriate to mention.
All in all, I was surprised by the way this came together, interesting stylistic choices in the end and a delightfully dark and often unsettling view overall. Very well crafted and certainly not easy to put into one slot or other.