Movie Information

The Story: When her father dies in an accident, India Stoker finds her world turned upside down by the arrival of a mysterious uncle, who may be romancing her mother, or possibly her, but whose motives are as cloudy as his past. The Lowdown: Ultra stylish mystery thriller from South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park with excellent performances from its high-powered cast. Far and away the best movie to come out this year thus far.
Genre: Mystery Suspense Thriller
Director: Chan-wook Park (Thirst)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver, Dermot Mulroney, Alden Ehrenreich
Rated: R

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

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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16 thoughts on “Stoker

  1. Xanadon't

    Oh my. This sounds exactly like everything I hoped and more.

    Every year it seems there are only a couple of movies that I anticipate so highly that I can’t wait until my nights off (Monday, Tuesday) come around to see it. This will likely be one of those “catch an early matinee before going into work” films.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’ll be interested to see how you like it. I think everybody who saw it at the press screening on Sat. a.m. was pretty jazzed about it. Now, how much that may have had to do with some of us having sat through Spring Breakers on Thursday, I cannot say.

  3. Xanadon't

    Well oddly enough you and your colleagues got a double dose of Harmony Korine. I hadn’t realized that he was cast in Stoker. And here I thought that I’d be avoiding him altogether this weekend.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I hadn’t realized he was in it till after the film. Anyway, seeing him appear in a film in a minor capacity isn’t quite the same thing as watching something he wrote and directed (I use both terms very loosel indeed).

  5. Orbit DVD

    Ken, you might like LADY VENGEANCE. It’s a slow burn but stylisticly brilliant. Some people like it better than OLDBOY.

  6. Xanadon't

    It’s a slow burn but stylisticly brilliant.

    Agreed. But it doesn’t feel slow to me next to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. I’m more comfortable trotting out the phrase “deliberately paced”.

    Some people like it better than OLDBOY.

    I’m very nearly one of those people. There’s something in the structuring of the narrative that didn’t fully work for me, and I think that’s what holds it back. I’d place it above Thirst though.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Deliberately/methodically/leisurely/slow paced — they’re all about the same. It’s what goes on during that pscing stylistically that makes it or breaks it.

  8. Orbit DVD

    Saw it this afternoon, excellent film.

    Halfway through I was coming back from the restroom and walked past a teenage kid who was flipping out. He was refusing to step back into the theater. Mission accomplished?

  9. Ken Hanke

    I would guess, but I’d be fascinated to know what got to him…

  10. Orbit DVD

    Without giving too much away, it was right after “teenage kill.”

  11. Xanadon't

    Well it took me damn long enough, but finally got out to see this. Visual storytelling really doesn’t get much better than what Park is up to here. Can’t wait to add it to my shelves!

    Not to suggest more similarity than what actually exists, but Stoker did everything for me that We Need to Talk About Kevin didn’t, and more.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I had almost come to believe that you had hated it and were keeping tactfully silent.

  13. Xanadon't

    Nah. Had that been the case I’d have let you know.

    What kind of response have you been hearing from people? I’m a little bit surprised that this didn’t play better with many critics. (I’m not surprised that Rex Reed makes a complete asshat out of himself with his “review” while completely disrespecting both the artist and the art– as he gives far too much of the game away.)

    We had the misfortune of sitting within earshot of a couple, the female half of which spent much of the time exclaiming, “Oh, this is just too weird for me!” Eventually this gave way to the sounds of sloppy and prolonged make-out sessions. Okay, fine. But given the content on screen that seemed a tad “just too weird”.

    Anyway, how devastatingly great was that “sand-angel”? I’ll be seeing this again.

  14. Ken Hanke

    I really haven’t gotten much feedback on it. Most of the people I know who are likely to tell me — like Justin, Chip, and Edwin — were at the press screening. A couple of our AFS/THPS regulars were on their way to it on Friday as Edwin, my wife, and I were waiting to go into Tyler Perry’s Temptation. I haven’t seen them since then, but they got much the better deal out of that. Oh, wait, Marcianne Miller told me it bored her.

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