Stoker Unsettles in All the Right Ways

Evoking memories of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker starring Mia Wasikowski, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman remains one of the highlights of 2013…

Stoker_teaser_posterWith Spike Lee’s disappointing US remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy currently in cinemas, the Korean maestro makes his own English-language feature debut with Stoker.

When you see or hear the title, you’d immediately think it has connotations of Bram Stoker, Dracula and vampirism, but Wentworth Miller (whose script has been around for a few years and was among the list of great unproduced screenplays), said that it had nothing to do with vampires despite the implications of the title, but claims that Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt was in the background of all this and his main inspiration for the creation of Stoker.

The film is actually about families and it’s a film about trust. It’s partially a horror film and it’s partially a psychological thriller, but what’s interesting about it is that it’s one of those films that does the thing that only cinema can achieve properly. Watching the film, the really interesting thing about it (if you’re familiar with the director’s other work you’ll know he has a very strong visual sense) is that Stoker is a visual feast; everything is to do with the way the film looks and what it symbolises.

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It’s the kind of film where the driving force of it is not the simple nuts-and-bolts of the narrative, but what it has is a symbolic power. It’s the film in which the sight of a spider crawling over a shoe and up someone’s calf seems to be incredibly profound and full of meaning. It’s a film in which two people playing a duet on a piano becomes a strangely, twisted sort of rapturous event and then vanishes (a masterfully done sequence). It’s the kind of movie in which families are turned in on themselves, and death appears to lurk at every corner. All the time, it is nodding its head towards greater themes: the loss of innocence, the birth of adulthood, the vampire idea, and towards archetypes with which it deals very knowingly. The problem with that sometimes is that it is possible to make a film in which that stuff is so overburdened, so overripe, and so laden with meaning, the film would start to stifle itself, but in the case of Stoker, that isn’t the case.

It’s a film where its coming-of-age story is completely subverted and turned in on itself, as usually the character leaves his/her nest in search of a new positive future, but in Stoker, it’s really the story about how a character slowly goes from being a surreal angel to becoming a monster, in search for evolution into being a complete evil incarnate, and that is absolutely represented in the character of India, wonderfully brought to life by the mesmerising and enigmatic Mia Wasikowska who does a wonderful job of carrying Stoker as the film’s lead. Nicole Kidman, on the other hand, plays a character that’s sexually longing and incredibly brittle, but that brittleness is played just right and is well suited.

Stoker_film_tennis_Mia-Wasikowska

The reason why Stoker is great is because it was very confidently done, and yes it is very heavily symbolic and it would be possible to sit down and pick the whole film apart and identify what means what. However, it’s not a film that invites you to do that; it invites you to watch it and read as much into as you want to. There are times when it actually becomes poppy and pulpy, and it is certainly not afraid of being trashy, and Park Chan-wook is a director who knows when to be trashy. But it is played at just the right level and is very wry, dark and twisted, yet a very intriguing and encouraging film that makes you think of it as an exciting piece of cinema that, like the spider in the film, crawls up your leg.

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Written by Ryan Pollard

Stoker_teaser_posterDirected by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Wentworth Miller
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver

Released: 2013 / Genre: Psychological Thriller / Country: UK/USA / IMDB
More reviews: Latest | Archive

About the Author
Ryan Pollard is a former student of Animation at the University of Huddersfield.

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  1. Rodney Reply

    5 stars probably isn’t enought stars for this one, Ryan; great work on the review, by the way. I loved Stoker, it’s my first experience with Chan-wook’s work and was throughly impressed by what I saw here. The way he framed things, used different lighting, focus and editing techniques, and elicited emotions purely through visuals more than dialoge, made this one of the standout films I saw in 2013. Even Nicole Kidman’s work here is damn good.

    If you’ll permit, I’ll throw in a link to my own review, for your thoughts….

    http://www.fernbyfilms.com/2013/11/20/movie-reiew-stoker/

    • Ryan Pollard Reply

      Thanks very much, Rodney. It was a very good and interesting review.

  2. Evan Crean Reply

    Great review. I’d argue that Stoker is overflowing with subtext and gets to be a bit much at points. As you say, the viewer can read as much or as little into that subtext as they want. However I feel like most will probably want to take it all in, which is where it can be overwhelming. I love the psychological aspects of this film. The piano sequence and the spider crawling up the leg, along with the shower scene are particularly memorable for how creepy they are. I also enjoy Chan-Wook’s interesting visual continuity. My main issue with this film though is its overarching story (again re: shower scene). I was disappointed because I thought the “twist” was really predictable. I disliked how it beat you over the head with its explanation, while other things were completely left up in the air, like why *spoiler* she kills the cop. For me this was still a B/B- film though.

  3. ruth Reply

    The title of this post says it best, it is very unsettling but in a good way. This is the first film by Park that I saw, and I’m glad it’s not super violent. He’s certainly has a keen eye for details and the cinematography is gorgeous!

  4. Mansfield Reply

    Excellent review. I’ve found “Stoker” to be absolutely unforgettable – it kind of creeped up on me after my first viewing and now, after multiple viewings, it’s become part of my nervous system. Vladimir Nabokov felt the highest purpose of literature was to “enchant”. If you apply a similar line of thought to film, “Stoker” is a complete masterpiece. I consider it a perfect film – it needs to be watched with all your senses open, just let the movie cast it’s hypnotic spell. And Mia Wasikowska can communicate incredible power with saying almost nothing – just with a look.

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