Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker was on my “most anticipated” list for 2013 because I was curious to see how the South Korean director, best known for his action/revenge “Vengeance” trilogy, would translate not only in English but also when working in the slower, subtler medium of the Southern Gothic family drama. I thought if nothing else Stoker would be lovely to look at because Park is a composition man, capable of framing beautiful shots. Well Stoker is certainly a beautiful looking film. It also happens to be COMPLETELY AMAZING IN EVERY RESPECT.
Stoker pushed all of my buttons at once—it’s a visually stunning film with distinctive photography, monster production design and values, top-notch acting from a first-rate cast, a clever, creepy story that reveals itself in intriguing and unexpected ways, and a soundscape so well designed you feel like you’re sitting in the Southern woods backed by one of Clint Mansell’s trademark haunting scores. There is nothing wrong with Stoker, nothing that could be changed or improved upon. Even Nicole Kidman’s frozen face and freaky lips (seriously, her lip augmentation is out of control) work in service of her emotionally fragile character. Her face looks like it would shatter if she smiled too much and so does her character. The only complaint I can come up with is that a few scenes, particularly early on, feel a bit mannered, like watching the rehearsal for a play. But the film settles down quickly and never goes off the rails once it does.
Written by Wentworth Miller (yes, the Prison Break star), Stoker follows India (Mia Wasikowska), her mother Evelyn (Kidman), and her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, Leap Year and Watchmen) in the wake of her father’s death. I really don’t want to get into the story any more than that. Stoker is better if you don’t know much about it. It’s not so much that there’s a big TWIST or anything, it’s just that the way the plot unravels is so well done I don’t want to take anything away from the experience of discovering it for yourself. I know how fruity that sounds, but believe me. One of the joys of Stoker is being surprised by Stoker.
So let’s talk instead about how amazing everything is, because everything is amazing. Kidman is terrific as the brittle Evelyn and Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) and Dermot Mulroney are more than serviceable in small parts, but the show belongs to Wasikowska and Goode, who blow every previous performance they’ve given out of the water. Wasikowska is so lovely and strange, one moment plain and the next stunning—she reminds me of Cate Blanchett—and she’s transfixing as India. She’s kept a low profile amongst her young twenty-something peers, but this performance is a reminder that she is a serious talent. And Goode, a charming Brit who’s been just this side of breaking out for years, gives what has to be one of the best HERE I AM performances in recent memory. He is suave, seductive, unnerving and vile in turns and you absolutely cannot look away from him when he’s on screen.
And then there is the visual pleasure of watching Stoker. You could mute it and it would still be an incredible film. Cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon, a frequent collaborator with Park, delivers gorgeous visuals. Combined with the production design of Therese DePrez (Black Swan) and art direction of Wing Lee (best known for work on Law & Order: SVU ) Stoker’s palate is dominated by warm greens and buttery light and the occasional bright slash of red. Here’s how great the design is for Stoker—India and Charlie’s spaces are devoid of life and drained of any vivid color. India is defined by soft pastels and pale wood tones and Charlie is surrounded by greys and browns. Evelyn, however, has a bedroom done entirely in carmine red and stuffed full of potted plants. The only living things in the house, besides the people, are in Evelyn’s bedroom. It’s an incredible bit of design, a touch that leaps out once it’s revealed.
The filmmaking is ridiculous, too. Park’s direction is masterful, and Chung’s cinematography is, at points, flat-out breathtaking, but the editing of Nicholas De Toth (Live Free or Die Hard, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is a master class in how important editing is to the filmmaking process. The three most important people on a movie are the director, the cinematographer and the editor, and here they are all working in perfect synch and the result is astounding. De Toth weaves in and out of past and present, telling a linear story with certain scenes picked out in backwards-reveals but it’s never confusing or obtuse. It’s a shame that when award season rolls around the best editing conversation is usually dominated by action films (this year’s Oscar went to Argo), because Stoker proves how essential good editing is to storytelling in film.
And the sound design is NUTS. You can’t help but notice it. From the constant buzz of birds and insects in the background to moments where a particular sound is highlighted, such as an egg rolling on a table, Stoker is why the sound engineers deserve recognition on Oscar night. I’m all for combining the two mixing and editing categories into one “design” category to save time, but they do deserve to stand up at the big show and be recognized for their work. The Foley team of John Guentner, Blake Collins and John Cucci get special notice for their superb work on sound effects—shoes on a stair haven’t been so forbidding since Hitchcock.
Stoker is insane, an unbelievable achievement for Park Chan-Wook, who, yes, has the ability to be a major player in English-language films. It’s a horror film with no horror, and one of the all-around finest examples of quality film production. It is absolutely a must see.