Anyone already planning on seeing Stoker, the English-language film debut of Oldboy and Thirst director Park Chan-wook, shouldn’t read this review. Or watch a trailer. Or read anything about it at all, really. While the film isn’t about big twists or midstream tonal changes, like many other films best approached tabula rasa, it does rely more than most on mystery and atmosphere. Even knowing the genre up front may lead viewers to approach it in a non-constructive way. It’s best taken one tense, exhilarating moment at a time, without anticipation or expectation.
For those on the fence, though: Stoker follows in the vein of Park’s past features by following an intense, fixated protagonist through a stumbling nightmare of rage and frustration that finally finds release in a decisive act of violence. Mia Wasikowska stars as an isolated, glowering teenager whose 18th birthday coincides with the accidental death of her beloved father. She barely has a relationship with her fey, arch mother (Nicole Kidman), and when an uncle Wasikowska has never met (Matthew Goode) arrives for the funeral, his increasingly close relationship with Kidman drives a further wedge between mother and daughter. Park and first-time writer Wentworth Miller (whose script made the 2010 “black list” of best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood) frame the process as a gothic drama, heavy on oppressive silences, beautiful compositions, and burning, meaningful looks. But the narrative feels like a Hitchcockian thriller, with barely repressed brutality underlying every exchange.
On paper, Stoker’s plot outline would look flat and conventional; at heart, it’s a startlingly simple story. The strength is all in the execution, particularly Goode’s steely-but-smiling performance and Wasikowska’s sullen, reluctantly captivated response. Their interactions, and Kidman’s fluttering obliviousness, make Stoker feel like a third film adaptation of Lolita. And Park mines immense tension out of a narrative that only seems predictable after the fact. A lush, rich wave of emotion, usually repressed and occasionally explosively released, buoys the film past its pedestrian structure. It’s best appreciated without foreknowledge of where the plot is going, because it packs so much of its energy into mood and the immediate moment that viewers could entirely defuse it by thinking too far ahead. But there’s a second reason to avoid spoilers: What snarls and swoons onscreen will look limp in description.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Stoker’s Spoiler Space.