If you’re a fan of Park Chan-wook’s previous work with THE VENGEANCE TRILOGY (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY and SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE), then you are more than familiar with what the South Korean film director is capable of as a filmmaker and a storyteller. Well, English-speaking audiences who didn’t allow themselves to take in the greatness of such films are about to find out what Chan-wook is about in a big way, with his English-language debut STOKER. With a haunting script penned by PRISON BREAK’s Wentworth Miller, written under the pseudonym Ted Foulke, in hand, Chan-wook has brought forth an absolute chiller that is both visually stunning and emotionally gripping. Telling the story of a mysterious uncle who shows up after the untimely death of his brother, lending his company to the man’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and wife (Nicole Kidman), STOKER delivers a mystery with a resolution always kept at arm’s length. The more you keep trying to uncover certain truths as each carefully orchestrated clue is brought to light, truths that Chan-wook doesn’t want you to have just yet, the deeper you get pulled into this thrilling game.
Matthew Goode plays the uncle in question, Uncle Charlie, who, at the very first moment he even steps on-screen, you know is carrying some type of secret. You know how sometimes you cross paths with someone at an event, a gathering, a party, and you just sense there’s something off about them? That’s Matthew Goode here, constantly walking a very fine line between creepy and charming. When his brother (a brief but very effective appearance by Dermot Mulroney) is found dead in a horrific accident, he comes to stay with India (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who really don’t much about their distant relative either. Evelyn knew of her brother-in-law, but that’s about the extent of their familial relationship, whereas India wasn’t even aware that an uncle of hers ever existed. And yet even as they mourn, they are somehow drawn to this mysterious man in some rather strange ways. Hell, I am, too, for he is the key to unlocking all the answers, but they find a drastically different appeal to his enigmatic existence. You can’t help but wonder when along the way this mother-daughter duo began questioning who exactly he is, where he came from, where he’s been, etc., as none of those inquiries seem to matter to this pair of women as they become further entranced by Uncle Charlie.
Goode is the key to hooking you, making Charlie equal parts smooth and frightening, like that guy at the office you just know is going to turn out to be a serial killer. You’re fascinating by how slightly off-kilter he is, but not enough to explore it for yourself. Better someone else than you, right? And as we learn more about what type of person Charlie really is, we can’t help but be drawn into finding out how deep the rabbit hole goes. What really motivates him? What does he truly want? What caused him to function in such a way? It’s easy to become terrified watching a man potentially transform into a monster right in front of you, but Goode adds a bit of a rush to seeing it unfold, captivating you with his performance that you can’t possibly look away until you know everything.
Mia Wasikowska was really a phenomenal surprise here for me, as I haven’t exactly enjoyed a lot of her work in the past (ALICE IN WONDERLAND, LAWLESS, in particular). Remember how cute Winona Ryder made dark and disturbed back in her BEETLEJUICE days? Well, slide towards the other end of that scale, and that’s where you’ll find Wasikowska’s erotically twisted India. Her transformation from an immature girl into a confident woman is complex and edgy, and, as we learn more about who she is in relation to Uncle Charlie, STOKER may head into very strange territory, but it’s the type that fascinates rather than confounds.
On top of these intriguing characters, Park Chan-wook has turned out a beautiful film to take in. With his cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, Chan-wook has put together a piece of work that is visually stunning, which wouldn’t necessarily be expected for a slow burn horror like this. In addition, it’s the symbolism he brings to the table, full of meaning in pulling back the curtain on some of the film’s mystery that shows his true genius. The use of spiders, of India’s shoes... even just a small comment made during a high school art class carry so much weight if you’re paying attention to what’s going on in STOKER beyond what’s being shown on the surface. There are so many layers making up the story Chan-wook is telling that as you keep digging and come across another one, it is far from frustrating; it is exhilarating that a filmmaker has the balls to challenge you on such an intellectual level, keeping you guessing as to where things are going end up.
I tried to keep this one as spoiler-free as possible, because the less you know of STOKER outside of its general premise, the better. The enjoyment of the film really comes from watching the puzzle gets masterfully pieced together for you, as you rack your own brain trying to solve it first. And, if you’re one of those who bitch that they’re isn’t anything good out to see at the movies, your prayers have been answered. STOKER is here. At times it can be a bit uncomfortable, while other times it is hynoptic... but throughout its entirety, there is one thing that remains constant - STOKER is fantastic.
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