The best way to watch Stoker, the new film from director Park Chan-wook, is as if you have the senses of its lead character. India Stoker, played by the brilliant Mia Wasikowska, has a special gift where she can hear and see things imperceptible to the rest of us, seeing the world for all of its smallest details and elements. Watching the movie, audiences should completely absorb themselves in it, pushing back reality to focus on every line, every cut, every pan and every sound. It’s the only way to properly view something this magnificent.
Mixing elements of the modern day, the Victorian gothic era and the mid-20th century, Stoker is a stunning mix of coming of age tale and horror/thriller that begins on India’s 18th birthday – the day her father (Dermot Mulroney) is killed in a terrible car accident. But it isn’t until the funeral that she discovers she won’t be alone in her giant house with her unbalanced mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman). It is there that she first learns of her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), family she has never knew existed. From there, Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller weave a captivating and phenomenal tale of mystery and terror, as sexual and psychological tension constantly rises between the mother, daughter and uncle and India’s fascination with her estranged relative unravels not only his past, but also her future.
Every frame in Stoker feels like it was crafted with satin-gloved fingertips and a pair of tweezers held by a filmmaker in complete control. Park makes regular use of long, flowing shots that take the audience around the palatial Stoker estate, lending the film not only a feeling of elegance, but a creepy, underlying voyeurism. The sound design is otherworldly, as we occasionally dip into India’s perceptions and listen to the world the way she hears it, from the light breathing and shallow gulps during a quiet family dinner to the shatter of a gunshot and gurgling blood. The film creates an opulent, wonderful landscape of senses that lures you in and snaps like a bear trap when the dark undertones become extreme overtones.
Leading the cast and lending a stoic, mesmerizing quality to India, Wasikowska is a stand-out in a cast replete with awesome performances. The young actress creates an impressive balance for the character, accentuating her great strength (like when she strikes back at bullies tormenting her at school) while also making her vulnerable (particularly when in the presence of Uncle Charlie). Goode’s take on the film’s mysterious antagonist is frighteningly reminiscent of Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in Psycho, while Kidman’s turn is blessed with subtlety that makes Evie’s instability all the more engaging. When the three gather in one room you can palpably feel the emotions between all the characters and it’s immediately clear you’re watching something special.
You won’t find any jump scares in Stoker. Nor will you find any demonically-possessed children, CGI beasts, or half-assed twist endings. The movie forgoes any stunts and tropes and instead generates genuine terror from flawless filmmaking, a collection of outstanding performances and a story of bubbling monstrosity and bad blood. If this is what Park Chan-wook can bring to the American film world, then hopefully he will stay for a very long time.