One of my favorite Brian De Palma quotes is ‘Coverage is a dirty word,’ and I suspect Park Chan-wook would agree with him. Always a master of evocative, precise shots, Chan-wook brings it to a new, elegant level in the wonderful, menacing and sexy Stoker. Any fears that Park would lose his voice during his trip to America, as has happened to so many other Asian filmmakers, can be set aside. This is his best film since 2005's Sympathy For Lady Vengeance.
It’s possibly his most beautiful movie yet. A sensual, goth gothic, Stoker is a mannered film with raging passion and insanity just under the surface, perfectly reflecting the lives of the characters within. Mia Wasikowska is India, a rich girl with more than a little Wednesday Addams in her, whose father dies on her 18th birthday. At the funeral her previously unknown uncle, Charlie (a smooth Matthew Goode), shows up, and moves in with the family. India’s grieving mother, played with ice queen nobility by Nicole Kidman, falls for the new man in her life, but it seems Charlie is truly interested in India. And that’s not even his worst secret.
To say that Mia Wasikowska leaves behind her girlish ways in Stoker is an understatement. While she begins the film as an innocent, moving gradually into a Lolita-like figure, she ends up becoming a fully sexualized woman in a profoundly disturbing and profoundly erotic shower sequence. It’s an incredible scene not just because of the sensuality but because of the way Park uses it to turn all of our expectations upside down, to disorient us in everything we thought we knew about this world he had created.
I can’t spoil what that is; the journey of discovery during the course of Stoker is extraordinary. It’s a film whose opening titles take on stunning new meaning in the end, whose imagery reveals its meanings only after the totality of the film has unspooled. The film is deliberately paced along that journey, but Park makes that pace flow by gracefully keeping us entranced with his gorgeous framing (cinematography by regular collaborator Chung-hoon Chung) and inventive, surprising transitions.
More than that, though, is the electricity of the acting. Often subdued, sometimes almost distractingly mannered, the three leads do a psycho-sexual dance that is nothing less than riveting. In the beginning the style of performance can be disorienting - Park isn’t going for exact realism here - but once you settle into the rhythms they enfold you completely.
Wasikowska is stunning, slightly underplaying but maintaining an immediate emotional certainty. We move through the story with her, and it’s a testament to Wasikowska as movie star and actress that even if we’re a touch ahead of her on certain discoveries we still want to be there when she finds out for herself.
Kidman is fascinating to watch. It’s impossible to look at her and not be aware of the extensive work she continues to do on her face - her facial movements are, at this point, extraordinarily limited. But she has been taking roles where that works, and this is one of those. Her character Evelyn Stoker is the sort of vain rich woman who would be getting tons of work done, and the limitations of her expressions speak to Evelyn’s repressed, selfish emotions. Beyond that, though, there’s a wounded aspect, a feeling of a woman who was caged through her marriage, finally set free, that Kidman essays perfectly.
Wasikowska is the star and the center of Stoker, but Matthew Goode is her binary companion in performance. He’s extraordinary, playing a man who is at first charming and suave but slowly reveals himself to be something much, much more sinister. And yet, even as his most sinister aspects are revealed, he remains charming and attractive. Goode has cornered the market on handsome, magnetic, creepy guys.
Each of these actors does incredible things, but it’s the overarching strength of the direction that elevates Stoker. The script, by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, is ever-so-slightly obtuse and subtly perverted, and in other hands it could have been schlock. There’s more than a little schlock in here, but it’s presented so artfully you forget it, even as blood spatters and belts tighten around necks. Stoker is definitely in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, directors who also approached the seediest of subjects with the greatest of grace.
There was a time when I worried about Park Chan-wook, when I thought Oldboy had been his peak and everything else would be a slow slide in quality. Coming to America made me nervous, as that’s been a bad, compromise-filled choice for too many foreign language filmmakers in the past. But Stoker is pure Park Chan-wook, and a movie that feels elegantly transgressive and viscerally exciting. It’s an incredible film, from an incredible filmmaker.