Some people seem predestined to play certain roles. Seldom, however, do you find a complete cast so perfectly suited to their parts as that of Stoker (2013), the new gothic thriller from Korean director Park Chan-wook. Holding the unfortunate accolade of being the last work on which the late Tony Scott was involved as a producer, this film starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman and Dermot Mulroney, takes gothic tinged minimalism to a whole new level.
After the death of her beloved father Richard (Mulroney), the sensitive and introverted India (Wasikowska) is initially surprised then suspicious with the arrival, as if from nowhere, of her mysterious uncle Charlie (Goode). As Charlie begins to ingratiate himself further with India and her emotionally fragile mother Evelyn (Kidman), she starts to suspect that there may be more to this sinister stranger than first appeared.
Stoker is a film offering more than a nod towards Hitchcock, most obviously so to Shadow of a Doubt, with other clear references including the phone box in The Birds (1963) and the cellar scene and motel from Psycho (1960), as well as obvious similarities between Norman Bates from the same film and the unhinged Charlie. Neither Park, through his masterful direction, nor novice screenwriter Wentworth Miller show any aversion to referencing the master of suspense, making little attempt to hide their evident admiration of Hitchcock’s work.
The film revels in a sense of stark beauty, with everything from the cast to the settings, dialogue and basic story itself cut back to the bare basics, throwing what’s left into sharp relief. The cast is particularly austere with only three central characters around whom the supporting cast flit briefly, before being summarily despatched or simply disappearing.
Though possibly the film’s biggest name in the sense of public recognition, Kidman’s relatively minor role (in relation to Wasikowska and Goode) only serves to bring emphasis to the scenes in which she appears. Recent years have seen the Australian actress become a parchment-like reflection of what she once was. However, Kidman’s increasingly porcelain-like brittleness is perfectly suited to the role of Evelyn, a woman seemingly unable to externalise her emotions particularly towards a daughter with whom she has always had a remote relationship. Kidman brings Evelyn an air of aloof imperiousness (which one can’t help but suspect the actress often carries over into real life) towards each person she encounters, culminating in the ambiguity and detachment felt in her own demise during the film’s climatic scenes.
The film really belongs though to Wasikowska and Goode, with its depiction of their burgeoning relationship fully believable as it plays out on the screen. Wasikowska (the young actress best known for her role as Alice in Tim Burton’s recent fantasy Alice in Wonderland ) is particularly striking as the initially innocent and reserved India. However, as she transforms, during the course of the film, from a child reminiscent of Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family (1991), to a mature young woman with a mind of her own, the viewer is never certain of the degree to which India is coerced or willingly participates in the grisly events which unfold. The perversions of Charlie, on the other hand, are never in question. The query surrounding him stems more from why he does what he does, whilst the clinical coldness of his character, methodically going about his sinister machinations, is brought to life with chilling realism by Goode.
Of the aforementioned supporting cast, veteran Antipodean actress Jacki Weaver deserves to be singled out. Creating more impact in a relatively brief screen-time than many achieve in leading roles, her participation in the proceedings is memorable as much for its brevity as its abrupt ending. Aside from the cast however, Stoker‘s most memorable and lasting image is its beauty. Like in an animated painting, scenes jump from the screen, whilst the final moments play out as though an artist has splattered the frames with great brush strokes of vivid, gory colour.
By the time Stoker finishes the viewer is left knowing surprisingly little about what lies beneath the ‘perfect’ exteriors of the characters whom they have been watching for the previous ninety odd minutes. However, where this may be detrimental in other films, it simply adds to the enigmatic air and sense of mystery that pervades Stoker, lending it a detached timelessness that makes it a joy to watch.
Stoker is released in the UK on March 1, 2012.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.
For another take on the film, see William Repass’ review.