I’ve long been a fan of director Chan-wook Park, the man responsible for the superior Vengeance Trilogy (OLDBOY, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, LADY VENGEANCE). That trilogy not only showed me what a talent this man is, but also to NEVER piss off a Korean. Cinematically, they get even like no others. STOKER is his English language debut, and let me tell you folks, it is fantastic.
The story, penned by actor, Wentworth Miller, is a slow-burn thriller, that kept me riveted to the screen the entire run-time, even though I had figured out many of the film’s mysteries early on. STOKER is the story of India (Mia Wasikowska), a teenage girl whose mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), comes to stay with her and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), after the tragic death of her father (Dermot Mulroney). Neither of the women knows very much about this Uncle, nor his past, and what his intentions truly are. The seductive cat-and-mouse game he plays with them, and what he stirs within each of them makes for a mesmerizing watch.
From the first time he makes his entrance, which is at the dinner after the father’s funeral, you can just sense that something is not quite right with him. He is at once disarmingly charming, yet simultaneously setting the hairs on the back of your neck on end. Neither of the women know much about him, in fact, India has never even met him, and didn’t even know of his existence until being introduced that evening. Charlie stays on at the house, much to Evelyn’s delight, and to India’s disapproval. It is from this beginning that the rest of the story unfolds, piece by piece. We as a viewer find out who Charlie is right along with India and Evelyn, and his back story is at the core of what makes the film tick. How he came to live with them should seem fairly obvious from the early hints one is given, but it is a credit to the film that I still eagerly awaited each little piece of the puzzle to by fleshed out on-screen to confirm my suspicions. I won’t go into spoilers at all, because I refuse to ruin the film and the entertainment the carefully constructed narrative provides. Just trust me when I say, despite some predictable elements, it is well worth the time.
Matthew Goode is perfect as Charlie. His task was a difficult one here. The character archetype has been done before, but he sells it so well. As each layer is peeled away, and we see into the core of what and who is is, it is a fascinating watch. He could have easily devolved into camp, but completely avoids that pitfall. The nuance and charm he displays is striking. Near the very end, in a flashback sequence with Dermot Mulroney (who appears briefly, but effectively in the film), when his facade is peeled away and you experience his vulnerability for the first time, only then do you truly realize what a great job he did in masking what made his character tick, roping you in, and making the other character’s reactions to him all the more believable.
Nicole Kidman is solid here. I’ve not been a fan of many of her performances, as I’ve always found her a bit bland and not able to sell emotion effectively. Perhaps, it was this reason that I enjoyed her work here. Her character, Evelyn, is an emotionally closed off, alcoholic, who needs to be taken care of and have her existence validated. The roles I have enjoyed Nicole Kidman in previously, all those characters have all held a similar trait–being damaged. From DEAD CALM, TO DIE FOR, and THE OTHERS, it is in those character’s that her style works. This film maximizes what she does well, and she handles what is required of her excellently.
This brings me to the true standout here, Mia Wasikowksa. I’ve previously thought her charmless in ALICE IN WONDERLAND and LAWLESS. She was definitely a surprise here. Her character’s arc is at the heart of what makes the film so effective and intriguing, and it is through her eyes that the viewer gains entry to the story. Her transformation from a closed-off girl into something else entirely is what makes this film so damn fun to watch. As layer by layer is revealed to her, the direction her character goes is unexpected and I was completely hooked. I won’t say more because I don’t want to ruin some very interesting plot developments. I will say, what could have been some out of left field beats, do not at all feel unearned. That in itself is a tribute to her performance as well as the screenplay. Wentworth Miller, who knew you had it in you?
Chan-wook Park’s style here is not only effective, but extremely inventive and stylish. There are quite a few imaginative visual flairs on display, and some pretty cool transition shots. The film is never boring to look at. He knows exactly where to place the camera, and what to show. It is rare that a foreign director transitioning to a Hollywood film, shows such confidence in his ability and material. His overseas films have all been bold, and graphic, but not gratuitous in their violence. He maintains his edge here, without going for shock. He does however seem to be channeling Hitchcock with this film, in tone and pacing. There is a scene in a phone booth that immediately evoked PSYCHO for me. But in a film like this, especially one as well done as this, the Hitchcock comparison is inevitable.
The only negatives I can muster for this review, are that some of the developments are telegraphed, but I still couldn’t look away. The film also cribs a few elements from the previously mentioned Hitchcock, plus there is a bit lifted from DEXTER, you’ll know what I mean when you find out the reason she went hunting. But if you are looking for a deliberately paced, extremely well-acted thriller, with style points to burn–look no further than STOKER. I could not recommend this film more. I can’t wait to see what’s next from Chan-wook Park, Mia Wasikowaka, and Wentworth Miller after seeing this. Enjoy!
The video presentation is very clear, and very crisp, exactly what one should expect from a Blu-ray. The visuals are slightly washed, but that is due to the color palette chosen by the director, not due to a flaw in the disc. This isn’t a show stopper, picture wise, but this also isn’t an effects driven film, so I can hardly fault the disc for that. There was no digital noise present and no flaws or aliasing that I noticed. All in all, a very solid video transfer, no complaints here.
The audio transfer left me slightly underwhelmed. The score and audio cues came through superbly. My issue is with the sound levels for the dialogue. Many times it seemed muffled and not matching the quality of the previously mentioned score. Not having seen this in the theater, I cannot be sure if it is a problem with the disc itself, or a conscious choice of the director. One of the themes in the film is the disconnect in communication the character’s have with the world and each other, and it is possible that the dissonance in the dialogue registering was a creative choice. If so, then I apologize, if not, then it slightly lowers my marks for disc presentation.
An avid (some would say psycho) movie collector and fan, Eddie is driven to share his passion for all things film with anyone he can get to listen. Incapabable (or is it unskilled...?) at guile (unless he's buying you a drink, then his motives can be suspect)...the unfiltered truth of his id is what you'll get from him. He also stands as a self-proclaimed expert of movie trivia that would rather not have to grow up if he has any say in the matter.
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