Stoker was a real audience divider on its cinemas release, with some feeling that Oldboy director Park Chan-Wook’s first English-language film was an underwhelming bore, while others went as far as to call it a horror masterpiece. To be honest I can understand where both sides are coming from, as your appreciation of the film completely depends on whether you fall for the film’s endlessly dripping style. If you don’t, it’s difficult not to notice the plot is slightly wanting.
The movie opens just after the mysterious death of Richard Stoker, who leaves behind wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and a slightly eerie daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska). India has led a sheltered life, and says she can hear the quiet things no one else notices.
The mother and daughter’s mourning is shaken up by the arrival of Richard’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), who India has never met before. She initially doesn’t take kindly to his creeping presence, but very slowly he begins to open her up and suggest to her possibilities she’d never thought about before. However Charlie’s creepiness may be more than skin deep.
It would have been fascinating to see what another director would have done with this script (written by Wentworth Miller, of Prison Break fame), as so much of the film ends up being about the style Park Chan-Wook layers onto it. It’s slow, meticulous and absolutely nothing is out of place. The production design is wonderful, matched to the sharp angles of the cinematography. Each of the characters seems slightly disconnected, both from themselves and from each other, so they inhabit their own little universes. It’s all slightly disconcerting and soon begins to build a sense of unease.
On the style front, the movie is undoubtedly a triumph, with only a few moments where it goes too far, such as a risible piano duet played out as if it were a coitus interuptus sex scene. However that can’t fully make up for issues with the story, which feels rather old hat, from the Shadow Of A Doubt premise of the arrival of a creepy uncle to the Carrie-esque young, sheltered woman having things unlocked inside her as her sexuality emerges. Throughout Stoker there’s a sense that storywise the whole thing will only hang together with a killer ending, but while it works very well when it’s revealing the truth about India, the revelations about Charlie’s backstory seem a bit silly.
It would be unfair to blame the script, as it’s very difficult to tell how much that was changed during the making of the movie. For example, the last few minutes are slightly strangely edited, so you pretty much know what’s happened, but you’re only shown around the edges of it (a technique used throughout the film, which some will find frustrating and which makes the movie unclear). However in the special features there’s an alternate version that shows a much more straightforward edition of the events, with far less room for audience interpretation. It shows just how much this is Chan-Wook’s movie, irrespective of who came up with the screenplay.
Stoker is a movie that’s begging for interpretations and indeed there will be plenty of people coming away from this with different ideas about what ‘really’ happened, but in trying to be deliberately oblique and mysterious, it slightly undermines its overall impact. It really would have been a very different movie in anyone else’s hands than Park Chan-Wook’s – not necessarily a better one, but vastly different.
I can’t quite decide whether I’d recommend the film or not, as I loved the style but thought very little of the story, except perhaps the way it deals with the emergence of female desire and sexuality (although even that could be seen as being slightly patronising). It really does depend where you sit on the style vs. substance spectrum, as while Stoker isn’t a case of style over substance, it’s the style that gives it any substance it possesses. So if you don’t go for the look and feel, you’ll get very little from it.
As well as the aforementioned deleted scenes, the extras also include a couple of featurettes, but nothing particularly interesting as they all have the feeling of being glorified trailers.
Overall Verdict: If you don’t fall for the eerie, disconnected look and feel, Stoker will have little impact on you due to its story shortcomings, but it you do you’ll adore it.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac