Yikes. Stoker is the American debut of Park Chan-wook, the acclaimed Korean filmmaker responsible for the Vengeance Trilogy -- Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy (the most famous film of the lot), and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, three films that helped redefine the "revenge movie" genre with their sheer brutality and dark, twisted attitude. That influence is on perfect display here, as Stoker is a movie that's all about atmosphere, possessing enough mood, style, tension, messed-up subtext, oppressive bleakness, and great performances to almost thoroughly negate a problematic third act that would've crippled a lesser film. Stoker is not jump-from-your-seat scary, but it will have give you chills long after it's over.
The story here follows India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a very weird and moody 18-year-old girl whose father Richard had just died in a nasty car accident. India was raised by her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) to be a proper lady, which she is, but she is also, essentially, a goth girl without the black clothes and makeup, having bonded with her father on hunting trips and having a collection of birds that the two had killed and stuffed. Almost immediately after Richard's funeral, Evelyn starts dating his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), a charming world traveler just returned from Europe who India suspects is up to no good right from the start. If you figure that she's probably right, then you'd be absolutely correct, but that's not where this film's true nature lies. India has a very sick attraction to Charlie and his evil ways that grows more complicated over the course of the film, going in directions I'd rather not spoil, but which both gripped my interest and served as my main frustration with the film. The manner in which India's relationship with Charlie ran hot and cold almost between scenes by the end of the film rang untrue to me, and verged on the point of being ridiculous. However, the twists and turns here, no matter how crazy they got, always kept my eyes glued to the screen, wondering just what was going to happen next. Right from the first frame, I knew that I wanted to see this movie through to the end.
A huge, huge part of why I stayed interested through this film's sometimes-uneven plot was the work of director Park Chan-wook. This was the final film that Tony Scott produced before he died, and Park's work here is a lot like Scott's, only with Scott's famous chaos tied to a sense of coherence and visual beauty in almost every shot. One could compare Park's style here to that of old-school Brian De Palma as seen in Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Scarface. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this is the most gorgeous film that De Palma never made, certainly the best emulation of his style. Park's dark, brutal sensibilities manage to come through vividly even with the decision to keep most of the explicit violence off-screen; this is no toothless, PG-13 effort, but instead lends a certain beauty to the violence, getting the viewer to follow India in her slow descent into darkness over the course of the film.
Park also directs his actors well, with the performances all uniformly rock-solid. Mia Wasikowska's India may look like a gloomy goth stereotype at first glance, but as the film explores the deeper layers of her character, so does she, keeping up and making her character that much more exciting to watch. Matthew Goode likewise makes for a subtly creepy bad guy whose performance gets much more interesting once we find out what Charlie's deal really is. Of the three main cast members, Nicole Kidman gets the least screen time as Evelyn, but she too gets her moments. If you've seen the trailer for this film, you're probably familiar with the chilling words that she gives to India as the trailer opens; that's just the most notable of many examples of her bravado acting here.
Score: 4 out of 5
Third-act problems are the only things keeping me from giving this film a 5. I'm still calling this a must-see for anybody looking for a great psychological thriller, with its twisted storyline and its stellar directing from Park Chan-wook.