After the mysterious death of her father on her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is introduced to the uncle she never knew existed. The funeral comes and goes; yet her mother (Evelyn played by Nicole Kidman) is still adamant in keeping Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) around for emotional support at their large country estate. India herself is a creepy young woman who wouldn't look out of place in the Adam's Family. She regards her handsome and chivalrous uncle with strong suspicion and silently contemplates his motives and timely appearance in her life. The young teenager's relationship with her father was strong (mostly remembered through flashbacks of their hunting trips together) and overshadowed/marginalised her connection to her mother. As India watches Charlie and Evelyn's relationship become increasingly inappropriately, the dark echoes of her family history take hold and develops into a frightening new chapter for her and her kin.
Although directed by the prolific South Korean director Park Chan-wook, the actual script is credited to Wentworth Miller who wrote it under his pseudonym 'Ted Foulke'. The screenplay was included in Hollywood's "Black List" of the 10 best-unproduced screenplays in 2010. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, and produced by Scott Free Productions and Indian Paintbrush, "Stoker" exists as an authorial black hole, as its cosmopolitan make-up muddies any worthwhile exploration for any singular authorial 'voice' or worldview.
The film's descent into the unconscious corners of the frame is perhaps where the film can most be appreciated. Working with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon ("Old Boy", "Thirst" and "The Unjust"), "Stoker" is a disturbingly hypnotic nightmare that relies on its thematically searching and enigmatic mise-en-scene. Motifs are a plenty in this regard. From the shoes India receives each year on her birthday to her father's belt that gets passed around (or rather claimed), the film is flecked with a visual array of recurrent thoughts and ideas. This is perhaps the real pleasure in such a psychological thriller such as this, being the experience, or acknowledgement, of the troubling waypoints and patterns that shadow the light of the images found on screen.
The plot itself is perhaps the film's most benign dimension, as the unknown and creepy uncle suddenly returns to claim the family after its head (India's father) is tragically and suddenly removed. The story is almost a dead-end itself, and the narrative tip toes around this disrupting family that was, very obviously, never psychological sound to begin with. There are no real surprises here, as character motivations and their actions seemed to be preordained and suggested/clued by more filmic, or 'visual', elements found within the frame (such as through Chung's composition and Park's eye for distressing atmospherics). It's almost as if the viewer faces a double-edged sword. One can't simply be swept away by the film's meandering narrative flow without appreciating the visual accents and more nuanced motifs, an act that, doesn't reward but punishes, by deflating the film's denouement as it comes to represent the inevitable.That said, "Stoker" makes for one fascinating and contemporary origin story. The film's final shot is indicative of many an American cross-country thriller. The visual motifs traced throughout the film fly, like metal pellets to a wanting source, and attached themselves to the low-angled and menacing figure at the side of a deserted road.
Some powerful performances, even if a little stock-standard, captured this family's deviant dark history. Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska carry their respected characters' fermenting psychological sickness onto the screen with a notable potency. Most the dialogue between them is twisted and covert, making the tone and portrayal of the mistrust between them particularly vital to this tale. There were no disappointments here through, as each family encounter screamed at the dark elephant in the room that they will all soon have to face. "Stoker" may not be as polished as fans and hopefuls would've liked, but that shouldn't deter those keen to take note on how South Korean directors are making their way into English language films in Hollywood.
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