Film of the Month: Stoker (Fox; 2013)

BY STEVEN ARMOUR

In the opening scenes of Stoker we see a young girl, carefree, frolicking through a lush woodland area in search of something – something she will not find until the end of her very unconventional coming-of-age journey in this perverse tale the Brothers Grimm would be proud to have concocted.

 Outsider India’s (Mia Wasikowska) adolescent existence is made all the more difficult with the untimely death of her father on her eighteenth birthday. Her frosty relationship with mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) leaves the girl – on the verge of womanhood – feeling even more isolated, until at the funeral an uncle (Matthew Goode) she never knew existed suavely waltzes into the family’s fractured world. Director Chan-wook Park has described the film as being primarily about ‘bad blood’, but this would be an understatement; Uncle Charlie’s sudden arrival awakens something deep-rooted in India, and the result is shocking (to say the least).

By no means a conventional horror film as promotional material would have you believe, Stoker is a delectably mixed bag of family drama, psychological thriller, and unsettling chills. The fact that it is hard to peg – along with dark themes and a highly stylised filmmaking approach – may be off-putting to less open-minded viewers, but those willing to stick with it are in for a rare treat. However, that isn’t to say Stoker is without its moments – plenty of surprises and disturbing inferences provide more thrills than the generic jump-scare horrors that have plagued our screens as of late. The film presents a surreal and artificial world – featuring moments of unmistakable camp – and the sooner we accept it as being so, the more easily we can engage with the characters and take the histrionic narrative for what it is.

Erotic tension coursing through almost every scene, the central trio ooze sensuality in every gesture and glance. There is a voyeuristic quality to India, and indeed Park’s camerawork, observing with a claustrophobic sense of intrusiveness into these damaged characters’ lives. Wasikowska and Goode turn in their best work to date, that is when they reel in their performances and avoid the wide-eyed, doll-like routine they indulge in during their first few encounters, and the suggestive relationship they convey can’t help but make us effectively uncomfortable. The former is particularly impressive in her restraint, making India’s more emotive moments all the more explosive. Kidman nails her role in perhaps the most difficult character to pull off, displaying a conflicted embitterment towards her detached daughter, all the while girlishly melting in the alluring presence of her deceased husband’s brother who she so desperately desires.

Nevertheless, where Stoker is most impressive is in its stylistic precision, stimulating our senses with exquisite cinematography, extraordinarily detailed sound design, and a dreamy score. Arresting scenes include Charlie’s cool seduction of Evelyn to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s “Summer Wine”, and a tense mother-daughter moment as Evelyn fiercely condemns India in a lengthy monologue shot in a confrontational close-up.

Featuring a heart palpitating and operatic final act, Stoker may pander more to cinema-lovers, but undoubtedly lingers in the mind, and while it may not live up to some’s expectations – after all, this is from the director of Oldboy – this is an exceptionally unique and challenging piece of Hollywood-produced cinema.

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