Here we have the first film of 2013 that I’m ready to call great. Chan-wook Park’s Stoker — his first English-language film — is easily the most remarkable film I’ve seen this year, and one that lingers in the mind. I also strongly suspect that it will pay dividends on repeat viewings. It’s a work of such stylistic complexity that I doubt it can be adequately absorbed in a single sitting. In case you don’t know, the film is a thriller — a slow-burn thriller that very nearly qualifies as a horror film. But don’t let that term throw you. This isn’t splattery teen horror antics. This is an almost stately film that paces its thrills and builds a sense of intellectual dread that’s very much aimed at adults. Though it has its moments of shock, it’s free of false scares and moments meant just to make you jump. Its notions of fear are more along the lines of the sense of a cold hand touching your shoulder — and you’re not quite sure you want to look. In fact, admirers of Park’s Korean films — like Oldboy (2003) and Thirst (2009) — may be disappointed by the restraint evidenced here. The sensibility is the same, but the approach is more…well, sophisticated.
The trailer perhaps tells too much, but since I’ve seen critics — even intelligent ones — who seem baffled by what’s going on in the film, maybe that’s just my take. Knowing the setup doesn’t really tell you all that much. We know that India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) father (Dermot Mulrooney) has just died in an accident; that her mother, Evelyn (a typically fearless Nicole Kidman), is strangely distant; and that Uncle Charles (Matthew Goode) has shown up out of nowhere — with very unclear motives. (Since the film has definite ties to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, it seems not unlike the name Charles is coincidental.) This is where the story becomes fascinating, but so much of what’s interesting lies less in the story than in the almost hallucinatory manner in which Park presents it — actions are sometimes out of chronological order, are often repeated and are not always reliable. All of them lead to the unraveling of a mystery that is rarely quite what it seems.
Stoker is filled with allusions to other movies. There’s a lot more here than the connection to Shadow of a Doubt. There are also echoes of Brian De Palma — and not just his Hitchcockian thrillers — since India’s coming-of-age is not unlike that of the title character in Carrie (1976). There’s an intense — and intensely creepy — piano duet (a piece composed for the film by Philip Glass) between India and Uncle Charles that comes across like a sinister version of the piano duet in Roman Polanski’s playful What? (1972). (It’s only a few scenes after Evelyn has been seen teaching Charles how to play.) There are also nods to Psycho (1960) and it doesn’t stop there. But in each and every case, the end result feels distinctly like Parks’ own work. He has made these moments his own.
This is a stunning and deeply disturbing (in a good way) film that more than delivers throughout its length in its visuals, repeated patterns and shadings. It’s one of those rare movies I wanted to see again as soon as it ended. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible since I saw it at an early morning press screening. That said, I have every intention of seeing it again when it opens this Friday. Yes, it really is that good. This is the kind of movie that helps restore your faith in film—especially when you’re just coming out of the winter movie dumping season See this movie. Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas and Fine Arts Theatre