This review can also be found at the South West Londoner, here.
I do love a bit of Gothic Horror. Not because I’m a fan of the macabre (not entirely, anyway), but because it has a wonderful precedent of being understated. And in the current Hollywood climate, bombast and explosions are king – so Stoker is a refreshing presence.
Director Park Chan-wook had a worldwide cult hit with Oldboy in 2003, but Stoker is his first film with English actors. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) is a troubled girl living in opulent American Suburbia. Her father sadly deceased, she’s quietly withdrawn but comfortable – until her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, Watchmen) comes to stay, and gets a little too close to her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).
Things soon escalate, but carefully and quietly. The first act is very much a slow burner, but when the spark of intrigue shows itself, you begin to reach the state of mind that the film demands – a focus on the finer details. This is helped in no small part by the cinematography director Chung-hoon Chung, who sets up shot after shot filled with detail. There’s a scene where a close-up of long hair pans and fades into swaying long grass. It’s perfectly done, and pretentious as all get out.
The acting definitely reflects that – while no one is under acting, the script is filled with hushed fear, quiet lusting and silent anger. Nicole Kidman pulls off hateful, piercing stares that I never knew she was capable of.While there’s a heavy focus of suspenseful horror; there’s also a core of human drama, as India grows into herself. She could be best described as Wednesday Adams reaching adolescence; and it works wonderfully.
When the instances of violence occur (and they definitely do occur, though not as intensely as in Oldboy) it’s a huge snapping of tension, and I appreciated the film’s low-key nature for it. It takes skilled direction to have violence that will get a reaction from its audience (since we’re generally desensitised to watching mild violence in films these days) without it going into fetishistic territory. Likewise, discussions and display of sexuality are toyed with here, often feeling unsettling but never gratuitous or disturbing.
It’s what, in my opinion, separates it from the standard Hollywood fare. In a traditional suspense horror film, the violence and feelings of entrapment come on hard and heavy, and after a while the impact is lost. More so with the standard of action films. Some manage to go beyond the basic requirement of ‘all spectacle, no substance’ (I don’t know anyone who didn’t love Django Unchained, and would rather not meet them), but that kind of film making is both easy and lucrative, so there may not be a change on that front for some time.
Watch It: If you want to watch something different from the current releases, if you’re a fan of cinematography, if you fondly remember The Addams Family or Daria.
Skip It: If you want more laid-back cinema, if you’re wary of sexuality without romance, if you picked on ‘the quiet kid’ in high school.
Want more? Why not look at Shadow of a Doubt, a Hitchcock work which heavily inspires Stoker‘s plot. Definitely watch more of Park Chan-wook’s films if you haven’t already – if Oldboy is too extreme for you, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay is a more comical affair.