Filter Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt through Korean director Park Chan-wook’s off-kilter sensibilities, and the result is Stoker, Chan-wook’s English language debut feature. It’s a nicely shot thriller that’s very well-acted, but methodical pacing, a nontraditional story, and some intense violence could easily alienate audiences unfamiliar with the director’s prior filmography.
India (Mia Wasikowska) is an overly serious high school girl whose father dies in a car crash on her 18th birthday. As friends and neighbors gather at her mother’s (Nicole Kidman) gothic mansion to mourn the family’s loss, India is surprised to meet an uncle she never knew existed, the perfectly-groomed and handsome Charlie (Matthew Goode). He’s mysterious, well-traveled, and India’s mother seems to be taking an inappropriate interest in him while he stays in their home. Charlie, however, is more concerned with India; he shows up at her school, follows her around, and fixes his steely gaze on her at every opportunity. She avoids him at first, but over the course of the movie she finds herself drawn closer to him as secrets are revealed: Charlie is a killer, and India kinda digs it.
Wentworth Miller, star of the former FOX series “Prison Break,” makes his screenwriting debut here, and I must admit, the film is a lot more layered and sophisticated than I gave Miller credit for on first glance. He peppers in references to works of classic directors like Hitchcock – the film could almost be considered a remake of 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt – and Fritz Lang – Uncle Charlie whistles throughout the movie, a motif that was used to signal guilt in Lang’s 1931 serial killer murder mystery M – while also crafting a compelling (if extremely strange) character study of India.
Chan-wook’s stamp is all over the movie, from the amazingly detailed transitions (Kidman’s hair fades into a shot of a meadow, a door opens in one sequence but someone entirely different walks through, etc) to tension-filled quiet moments around the dinner table. The sound effects are ramped up to mirror India’s seemingly superheroic hearing abilities, and when death could be around any corner, even the sound of a light switch turning on can cause a jump scare.
While the film features plenty of blood and some gruesome murders, it is more of a coming-of-age tale than anything – albeit a bizarrely sexual and incestuous one. India’s growth into adulthood and her kaleidoscopic relationship with her mother becomes the focal point as the movie comes to its unexpected climax, but some of the character motivations lost me as the suspense came to a head. Having only a few hours to reflect on Stoker, I can’t quite pinpoint the film’s overall message; once the wave of blood ebbs, I’m not sure if there actually is one. That’ll be fine for some, but for a film that so clearly has a lot to say (and definitely has interesting ways to say them), I just wish the final piece came together a bit more clearly in the end. Until next time…