When a successful and respected director from the world cinema stage makes their debut on US soil there’s usually a justifiable sense of unease. Are they selling out? Sanitising themselves? And if not, will the sensibilities of one culture translate into, ahem, American. It’s tough to predict, and when it doesn’t work it really doesn’t work. Takashi Shimizu’s dire retelling of his own material (The Grudge) for Western audiences still smarts. The point is, there’s enough negative precedent to cast doubt on even the surest of sure-things. And if there’s one director who has proven himself a sure-thing over the past decade its Park Chan-Wook.
Leaping to (entirely justified) world-wide acclaim with Oldboy – the second film in his vengeance trilogy – Chan-Wook has since successfully also traversed the kooky rom-com (I’m A Cyborg) and impressed with an innovative and genre-bending vampire flick (Thirst). Regardless of the frequently dark and disturbing subjects that catch his eye, there are few filmmakers at present who can match his kinetic work and sumptuous visuals. His films are brimming with ideas, infused with incredible style. If anything the man was set up perfectly for a fall.
Enter Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller with an original screenplay named Stoker. A talky melodrama about an affluent yet dysfunctional American family. Hardly an inspiring proposition, but it took Chan-Wook’s interest. In retrospect that’s hardly surprising as Stoker touches on many themes that have drawn his attention in the past. To reveal some of these would be telling. But how does it all fit together, and how does the end result tally against the man’s already-impressive back catalogue?
Appropriately for this macabre trip into the American gothic, Stoker begins with a funeral. Patriarch Richard (Dermot Mulroney, seen only in flashbacks) has died in a mysterious car accident, leaving behind chilly wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and their fiercely savvy 18 year-old daughter India (Mia Wasikoswka). They live together in a luxurious country home, all high-ceilings and empty bedrooms. Theirs is a detached and strained mother-daughter relationship.
Into this void strolls Charlie (Matthew Goode), the child-faced uncle India never knew existed. He exudes a worldly confidence which bedazzles Evelyn as much as it does India, though in particularly different ways. His presence threatens to detonate an already tense situation, as Evelyn proves so welcoming as to practically dance on poor Richard’s grave. India – a daddy’s girl through-and-through – feels threatened, whilst all the while murderous secrets begin to unravel.
If it all sounds a little soap-opera, then fear not. Though the trappings of melodrama are rife, Chan-Wook is smart enough to play on these, and as such Stoker hits a tone somewhere between Twin Peaks and Heathers. It even shares the former’s quixotic timelessness. All the local schoolboys seem to ride motorcycles and hang out at a joint not dissimilar to the Roadhouse from Lynch’s seminal TV show. Stoker never pretends to be anything other than a dark twisted fairy tale, and so should be met on those terms. If you’re up for a good yarn, you’ll be thoroughly entertained.
Miller’s script keeps things corkscrewing nicely, as some chronological slight-of-hand allows revelations and plot twists to stack-up and pay-off. Building upon this, Chan-Wook assembles the film like a master. The devil is in the detail here, and nearly every shot contains something to delight or distract, promising further easter eggs for repeat viewings. If anything, Stoker is almost too showy, threatening to turn into a technical tour de force at the expense of all else.
Fortunately there are two bravura performances here which counter-balance Chan-Wook’s flair for the elaborate. Matthew Goode is equal parts smarmy and seductive as Charlie, hitting just the right level of creepy even as the layers of his character peel away. He worms his way into scenes, smiling through gritted teeth like a wolf. His wafer-thin faux-innocence is appropriately sinister.
Good as Goode is, he (and everyone else) is resolutely trounced by Mia Wasikowska. She positively owns the film. Clearly relishing the role of India, Stoker is her coming-out party, happily putting memories of Alice In Wonderland firmly to bed. Sure, the character is practically a carbon copy of any disillusioned wallflower girl from any number of similar rights-of-passage tales, but still she nails it, commanding the screen and the viewer’s affections. It’s just as well, as India could easily have spilled over into bratty. Full marks to Wasikowska.
Chan-Wook pulls a neat trick. For the majority of the film he squashes her down into the bottom half of the frame. She appears small and hemmed in, and is constantly looked down on (literally) by those she shares scenes with. As this tale of lost innocence unfurls and India discovers just who she intends to be, her ascension is therefore all the more pronounced. By the end of the film she towers over everyone, including oh-look-who-it-is Ralph Brown as the town sheriff.
With the lush visuals and weaving story, I was kept thoroughly entertained by Stoker. It has a wicked heart, sickly and black humoured. This, along with Chan-Wook’s exceptional grip on the production, make it easy to overlook some of Miller’s clunky dialogue and questionable character-swerves. Even a somewhat lazy tell-all flashback in the final act managed to land gracefully. There may be more than a dash of hokum to Stoker‘s story, but the presentation was so assured that I really couldn’t have minded less.
Indeed, if there’s any real cause to complain it’s for Nicole Kidman, whose Evelyn is severely underwritten. Whenever she is given something to sink her teeth into, Kidman gives it her all, which rather underlines how little she actually has. Never mind. She’s grandstanded many times before. This is Wasikowska’s time to shine.
And Chan-Wook? He’s commendably crossed the Atlantic with style. This is the kind of film you wish Tim Burton was making instead of his feeble parade of remakes and reboots. It might not quite measure up to Chan-Wook’s Korean classics, but nevertheless, Stoker is a slam-dunk, a home-run, and whatever other American sports metaphors you can think of. How awesome.