Tension builds in small twists
Stoker is the sort of stylish, cerebral movie that engages your brain instead of your emotions, and yet you’re never less than intrigued by the breathtaking visual artistry of this slow-burn thriller. This technically spectacular movie — in Stoker, light and dark matter, and you need to pay attention to the color palette, too — is the work of South Korean director Chan-wook Park, best known for Oldboy, part of the vengeance trilogy. Stoker is not really about vengeance, though: Instead, it revels in the soul-deep darkness always hidden in the best works of psychological suspense.
The story begins with the funeral of Richard Stoker, beloved father of India (Mia Wasikowska) and husband to Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who are left rambling around their big old house without much to say to each other. Mother and daughter, we get the impression, have never been close, and tragedy hasn’t pulled them together. Evelyn refers to the distance in her marriage to Richard (played in flashback by Dermot Mulroney), and seems to cope best by clinging to a glass of wine. Richard and India shared a stronger bond, and India appears shell-shocked by his death — or is she always so reticent?
Then a stranger arrives: Charlie (Matthew Goode), Richard’s younger brother, whom India has never met or even heard mentioned. He’s handsome, charming, well-traveled and well-read, but India immediately views him with a heightened awareness and suspicion. Of course, India may be unreliable at distinguishing normal from sinister; the film drops unsettling hints about her. She doesn’t seem to have friends and is awfully isolated for a modern teenage girl (most of the time, Stoker favors generic hairstyles and wardrobe so placing it in time is tricky until one character shows up with a cell phone). India also enjoys hunting (and employing taxidermy to preserve her kills, which decorate her dead father’s office). She doesn’t like to be touched, but she’ll watch in cool detachment as a spider crawls up her leg. She will tell you she is different because she sees and hears what most people ignore. And some sense is telling her Uncle Charlie has ulterior motives beyond merely consoling his brother’s family.
For awhile, Stoker is a movie about tension and inaction, about people trying to figure out what’s going on in someone else’s head. The three main characters circle each other warily, but as the script — written by Erin Cressida Wilson and actor Wentworth Miller, best known for his work as an actor on Prison Break — teases out its secrets, Park offers up deceptively simple but stunning images: a skirt blowing around a girl’s legs; a woman’s hair melting into waves of grass; blood spatter sparkling against a red wall. Like the rest of this mesmerizing movie, they’ll linger in your memory.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver, Dermot Mulroney.
Director: Chan-wook Park.
Screenwriters: Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson.
Producers: Michael Costigan, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 98 minutes. Disturbing violence and sexuality. Playing in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Sunset; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Palace, Delray.