Park Chan-wook’s English language debut is a visually stunning, morbid tour-de-force even if the source material is lacking at times.
Stoker in no way refers to the famed author of the ultimate vampire story. Nor does it maintain any links to the supernatural. However, it is a gothic tale, in the classic sense, saturated with a sense of eeriness. Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) creates a fascinating visual tone, but struggles to mesh it with the script, which despite being on 2010’s Blacklist (an annual list of the best unproduced screenplays), doesn’t always seem to merit the mastery of Chan-wook’s camera. Written by Wentwork MIller (yes, of Prison Break), it’s not that the script is lacking, necessarily, as it’s a very subtle film to begin with, one that relies more on subtext and sense rather than plot. However, as engrossing as Chan-wook’s finished film is, there just seems to be a disconnect between his work and the script, and it’s what holds it back from being a great film, instead of a very good one.
Chan-wook is also able to evoke fantastic performances from his three leads, Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode, as well as the lesser characters played by Jacki Weaver and Dermot Mulroney. Of course, all of them are already well known and acclaimed actors but Chan-wook casts them all perfectly and creates and ensemble that works. Wasikowska carries most of the weight on her shoulders, as India Stoker, a loner high school student who’s grieving for the unexpected death of her father Richard (Mulroney), to whom she was very close. Now the distanced relationship with her off-kilter mother Evelyn (Kidman) is magnified as the two must manage without the patriarch. India is an outcast in school, and now feels like one in her own home, one where Evelyn isn’t sure how to connect with her daughter, nor does she really seem to be mourning. But India’s interest is peaked when Charlie (Goode), shows up as an uncle she never knew existed. The mysterious Charlie starts to ingratiate himself into the family, slowly building a playful repertoire with Evelyn, and to an extent India, which casts an unsettling eroticism over the house.
It’s at once this strange, southern-gothic tale of a dysfunctional family thrown into even more disarray, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale about a young girl. She’s on the cusp of adulthood, teased by the boys at her school, all while discovering herself, and her sexuality, with some assistance of her uncle. Her uncle represents a lost part of herself she doesn’t know and, perhaps wants to embrace, but is afraid of the consequences, more importantly, the reality of what it all means. In that sense the film, and the script, is a big success. It blends genres to create something that is wholly original, thriving on character development. But, again, as twisted and dark as the film gets, there’s something about it that never feels as if it gets to the root of the film. There’s some barrier that never fully breaks down allowing the audience to fully interact with the characters. Still, it’s an excellent film and one that hopefully breaks Chan-wook into the international market.
Rating: 4 out of 5