FEARNET Movie Review: 'Stoker'


It's always a satisfying surprise when a horror film transcends what sounds like a thoroughly conventional story -- and it's even better when that film ends up as great as Chan-wook Park's Stoker. The fantastic South Korean filmmaker has given us Oldboy, Thirst and several other unique imports, but Stoker marks the man's English-language debut, and (happily for all involved) does a superlative job of, like I said, transcending a potentially familiar premise.

Easily one of the most visually beautiful films of the year, Stoker is about a shy 18-year-old girl whose father has just been killed in a car accident. India (Mia Wasikowska) is an intelligent and beautiful young woman, but she's also saddled with an emotionally vacant mother (Nicole Kidman) and a strange uncle (Matthew Goode) who conveniently pops up at the most strategic moments. It's pretty obvious that Uncle Charles is up to no good, but figuring out the specifics (along with the characters) is half of what makes Stoker such a coolly appealing little thriller.
The screenplay by Wentworth Miller (yes, the actor) is canny enough in its own right, but when combined with the director's austere detachment and some consistently lovely cinematography and scene compositions (plus an excellent Clint Mansell score), the result is a cool, quiet, and very confident horror story. At its best moments, Stoker almost seems like a gender-reversed take on themes and ideas found in Lynn Ramsay's (also excellent) We Need to Talk About Kevin. Poor India is not only shattered by her father's death, but her mother is clearly not the most affectionate woman, and Uncle Charlie... he has his own issues.
Even without the quality brought forth by Park, Mansell, and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, the three leads are virtually flawless. Ms. Kidman has the least to do, but the gal is still as icily commanding (not to mention gorgeous) as ever. Matthew Goode's performance is all sorts of fun to watch; the actor switches from sweet and wholesome to leering and unhinged without missing a beat -- and he's not playing the sort of "villain" you're probably expecting. Leading lady Mia Wasikowska is nothing short of a revelation here. The actress is asked to do a lot in Stoker (emotionally, physically, sexually, etc.) and she's easily up to the task. (Her performance reminded me of a young Samantha Morton, which is meant as a very large compliment.)
In the hands of more pedestrian filmmakers, Stoker would probably hit the screen feeling like a sexy and slightly audacious thriller that doesn't stick in your memory bank very long. Fortunately it seems that the producers allowed Chan-wook Park the freedom to turn a creepy but simple story into an unexpectedly special piece of horror cinema. It's easily one of the most accomplished chillers of the year, and while you may even figure out where Stoker is headed before you're supposed to, the film is so damn beautiful to look at, you won't mind just playing along.