The old saying “they’d never be able to make this now” has been repeated so much these days it’s worn into the ground. Yet considering some of the material that lies within Stoker, one could imagine getting it greenlit now would be a struggle. The social media “discourse” would be a nightmare too. In the ten years between the film’s first release and where film viewing is now, the world has most certainly changed. Nowadays I wonder if director Park-Chan Wook would even be interested in making a film on western shores again, only previously back to direct the TV show The Little Drummer Girl (2018). With his recent feature Decision to Leave (2022) having a great run on the arthouse circuit, maybe he will find something again in western culture to set off a spark.
What ignited this story, came from an unexpected place. Wentworth Miller, mostly known then for his brooding looks in the TV show Prison Break, had written the screenplay under a pseudonym to make sure the scripts he wrote stood up on their own two feet. The screenplay found itself on the Blacklist, a list of the best-unproduced scripts being shopped around Hollywood, before being picked up by the South Korean Park, who is mostly known in the west for his vengeance trilogy, more notably the infamous Oldboy (2003).
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Stoker focuses on India (Mia Wasikowska), a young girl with an uncanny acuteness of the senses. When her father dies unexpectedly, she is greeted by her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a man whom she has never met. Charlie’s appearance lights a fire within India’s fragile lush of Mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who agrees to have Charlie stay in their huge southern manor indefinitely.
Despite Evelyn making eyes at Charlie, the brother of her dead husband is keenly fixated on India, who at this point could care less. However, something about Charlie both compels and scares her. Why is it that an impromptu visit from Aunt Jackie (Jackie Weaver) brings such tension? What made the housekeeper so startled that she leaves without saying a word? The emergence of the enigmatic Charlie intertwines with India’s burgeoning womanhood. Something sinister this way creeps.
From the very title alone Stoker riffs on that of the vampiric. When the long-lost Charlie first enters the scene, there’s talk of him coming back home from Europe. A small nod to the origins of vampires in its way. We see pencils become stake-like weapons, while much like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, shadows unveil ominous intent.
The influence of Hitchcock also looms large over the film. Uncle Charlie shares his namesake with that of the murderous criminal Charlie from Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Goode’s Charlie is shaped very much in the same vein as Hitch’s familiar motif of the likeable criminal. A mysterious man of unknown business, whose intentions towards his niece are troubling at the very least. While all this crawls over the text, the touch of Park Chan-Wook’s eastern films can also be felt. The family melodramatics and abnormal eroticism never stray too far from that of Oldboy (2003) or The Handmaiden (2016).
Ten years on, Stoker now shocks less because of its taboo, and more due to its craftsmanship. At the time, it was easy to knock the film’s abundance of style. Grantland’s Wesley Morris noted the film to be “too wastefully handsome”. Other reviews were quick to note it as style over substance. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a film that is Directed, with a capital D. Even I asked myself: “Do we need a fancy pull focus within this conversation?”. The answer to the question is yes. Stoker is stocked and filled with so many visual moments that it shows up just how unambitious other modern thrillers can be.
The visual tics that flow throughout Stoker are an invigorating tonic in comparison to the “shot for coverage” style of many recent films. Perhaps this is an unfair comment. But as cinema evolves to encourage viewers to only engage with empty spectacle, what’s profoundly surprising is how unremarkable so much of it all is. At least in Stoker every composition feels thought out. Park noted in the film’s UK Blu-ray that he was happy that Stoker isn’t a film that revolves around dialogue. So much of the film is sensory. The cliché that you could play such a film with the sound off and still understand it rings true here. In a behind-the-scenes interview, Nicole Kidman describes Stoker as an “elegant thriller”. The kind that “you don’t see much of these days”. Ten years later, you perhaps see such things even less.
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It’s easy to dismiss Stoker as style over substance, with a slight feeling that it is almost a slight exercise over Park’s boarder range of work. Stoker is in no way as intricate as The Handmaiden, nor is it as emotionally impactful as any of his vengeance trilogy. It’s also interesting to see that despite its aesthetics, Stoker doesn’t engage with as much Southern Gothic as much as is perhaps expected, despite inklings of it creeping out of the seams.
Coming out a year after the likes of Killer Joe (2011), Park feels little need for any explicit commentary on America. This doesn’t stop him from playfully utilising his techniques to make a unique haunted house film. It barely leaves the huge empty house these characters inhabit. This is a story in which the death of the patriarchal figure encloses around its three main figures, allowing one person to perhaps their true predatory nature. However, while this could have been so easy to play what we see “straight”, it’s the texture that Park places within the story which separates it from the pack. Brushed hair transitioning slowly into a field of wavy long grass. The buzzing of flies helps alert a viewer to a flashback. An early sequence set during the wake of India’s father is handsomely reminiscent of the bravura museum sequence in Brian De Palma’s gorgeously filmed Dressed to Kill (1980), strengthening the film’s love of Hitchcock. Hey if your film seems to homage De Palma, then it’s most certainly going to homage the Leytonstone legend.
A good cast is needed to round out Stoker’s playfulness, and the players here do not disappoint. Matthew Goode’s reptilian performance as Charlie makes me wonder why he isn’t more of a so-called “big deal”. His Uncle Charlie may have the namesake of Joseph Cotton’s character in Shadow of a Doubt, but the faux charm and unsettling stillness he brings feel more like borrowing snippets from the performances of Antony Perkin’s Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) and Robert Walker’s Bruno in Strangers on a Train (1951). His display is such a difficult balancing act. Watching a gaggle of screaming schoolgirls drool over him is believable, but when alone with India, even the most innocuous lines feel “off”. It’s fascinating to watch Goode even just smile in this. Polite yet empty. Leaving a viewer on tiptoes.
Goode’s slippery performance is a great foil for Mia Wasikowska’s introverted turn as India. The tension between India and Charlie is palpable as we see her becoming more confused and even enthralled by her uncle’s incestuous desires. Two of the film’s pivotal moments work best simply by Wasikowska’s reaction to her character succumbing to eroticism.
As for Nicole Kidman? It’s easy to see her elegant red-carpet moments and forget that this is an actress who devours these kinds of thrillers. In a different role from when she’s appeared in similar features, she mines the fragility out of her character at every turn. Having great fun as a dazed widow, whose feminine charms as decreasing as quickly as the bottles of wine she now sups. It’s through her character that the Southern Gothic tinge comes through the strongest. Although this may have reached its zenith five years later in Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled (2017).
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A decade since its release and it’s still morbidly exciting to watch the cogs of each character turn in Stoker. That this sort of mid-range thriller hides amongst the tall digital grass of streaming platforms makes a rewatch of this a particular kind of indulgence. Luxurious visuals which don’t waste space. Cast and direction that sweep a viewer up, allowing them to get away with its absurd story and taboo subject matter. But most of all a certain sense of eccentricity that is quietly being eroded from the mainstream unless someone places the word “multiverse” at the end of a title.
In rewatching Stoker, I found myself once again intoxicated by its atmosphere. Once again becoming absorbed in the film after scratching underneath the surface of its superficially clean middle-class veneer. Park Chan-Wook has directed stronger films before this. He’s most certainly made more captivating films after this. But Stoker remains an invigorating exercise into the macabre. The kind of charismatic work that we need to scream about more if we want it to exist.
Stoker was released on 1st March 2013.