Sundance 2013 Review: STOKER Is A Triumph Of Beauty And Violence

Sean Smithson, Contributor
Around these parts, a new Park Chan-wook film is an event to be highly anticipated. So I was quite excited to have the chance to see the maestro's latest film, Stoker, his first in English to boot, at Sundance last weekend. His uber-violent Vengeance trilogy, and political thriller JSA: Joint Security Area, are undisputed classics, though some would say (including me) the director later had a couple of minor missteps with I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK, and his vampire film, Thirst.

So while Stoker was indeed at the tip-top of my "must see" list for Sundance, I didn't allow myself to turn cartwheels before I had a chance to lay my eyes on the film in its entirety.

Now? I'm doing cartwheels.

Stoker is what you've come to expect from Park's work: A twisted tale of familial obsession, sexual repression, buried histories, and, in the loosest and grimmest sense, self-liberation.

A modern Gothic, Stoker begins with the aftermath of the death of Richard Stoker (played in flashbacks by Dermot Mulroney), a monied man with a family estate, a beautiful wife named Evie (Nicole Kidman), and a daughter named India (Mia Wasikowska), with whom he shares a particularly close relationship. India is an eccentric loner of a young girl, on the verge of womanhood, when her father dies in a questionable car crash. This drives India deep within herself, and she creates a mental cocoon of self-counseling, and a constantly running interior monologue. Preferring to keep her own company on the family estate, she has no clique of friends, and is singled out as something of a morbid curiosity at school by her peers, targeted by bullying jocks.

During her father's wake, Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who she had no prior knowledge of, shows up at the sprawling Stoker home, announcing he's decided to stay awhile under the pretense of helping out and getting the immediate family members through their grief. Before long, Uncle Charlie and mother Evie develop an uncomfortably intimate relationship, sharing whispers and fleeting touches, which India spies from behind lace curtains, or through darkened panes of glass. 

As other family members pass through, for brief visits and to pay their respects, it's obvious there is something more to Uncle Charlie than a caring benevolence and altruistic desire to help his family. When Aunt Gwendolyn, an older matriarchal presence in the Stoker clan, finds Charlie there, we feel an electric tension, as the distraught unit attempts to cope with their loss, as well as welcome the mysterious, long lost uncle back into the fold.

Soon Charlie is focusing his attention on the lonely and perturbed India, trying to win her favor and gain her trust. Suspicious, India at first ignores the advances made at closeness, but when she decides to meet up with a boy who has been defending her at school, and the situation goes sour, Uncle Charlie shows up in the nick of time. Through a display of being protective in the extreme, he seems to finally hammer a crack in India's stand-offish attitude. Let the psychodrama begin!

Now let's remember, this is a Park Chan-wook film, and things eventually go off the rails in a huge way. Maybe India shares a lot more in common with this long-lost relative than originally anticipated. Issues of family loyalty, romantic/sexual misconduct, and hereditary insanity are the main underpinnings in Stoker. Nicole Kidman is at her icy best as the widowed wife, who may or may not be a villainess, trapped with her grief in the gigantic manor of a house, trying to assert motherly influence and control over her distant daughter. Mia Wasikowska is layered, and simultaneously sympathetic and creepily suspect, as the dour India. Her performance never digresses into something overtly "emo" or cartoonish in the semi-morbid overtones of her character's personality. 

The real revelation for me was Matthew Goode. His sly smile, undeniable charisma, and note perfect control of timbre in playing Uncle Charlie close to the chest was the film's masterstroke. A scene in which he and Wasikowska perform a piano duet that becomes heated to the point of being downright erotic could have been laughable, had it not been played by two such solid actors.

Stoker is a difficult film to wrap up in a synopsis, if only for the fact that I don't want to give away any of the twists, some of which even had an old hand like me going, "Whoa...wait a minute...", but Stoker sure as hell isn't a difficult film to recommend.

All the visual flair and giddy, saturated colors inherent in Park's films are on display here, from the warm greens and browns of the Stoker family grounds, lovingly massaged by the camera, to the privileged and manicured cleanliness of the immaculate Stoker home, in which we the viewer always remain somehow "outside." A beautiful structure, as cold and heartless as the people within, is a physical reflection of the disenfranchised and cloistered, desperately grasping at the illusion of healthy normalcy, while the impossible-to-contain terrors of their dark family history threaten to erupt in an explosion of bloody truth and violence; a tragic inevitability. 


As far as this being Park's first English-language film, I read that the director actually spoke not a single word of English on set, and worked completely through a translator with his cast and much of his crew. This is an amazing feat in itself, given that the screen talent are all 100% spot on and the flow of Stoker itself makes it my favorite film in Park's filmography since Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, faring far better than many of the hot shot Asian filmmakers who have crossed over into American cinema (cough John Woo cough). I'd compare him to someone like Darren Aronofsky, or maybe David Fincher, to try and contextualize the tone for someone not already familiar. Then I'd point them straight at Oldboy and tell them to strap in.

Stoker is absolutely a successful crossover for Park Chan-wook into English-language cinema, and is also a triumph of style as well as casting. Nicole Kidman once again proves she's an incredibly powerful screen presence (To Die For, anyone?), Matthew Goode, again was a surprise and a revelation to me, and it doesn't take a Magic 8-Ball to know that Mia Wasikowski is here to stay. Whodathunk the young girl from the way-better-than-it-should-have-been zombie short I Love Sarah Jane would emerge so quickly, ready for bona-fide A-class stardom (and deservedly so). Hell, I even went back to re-evaluate Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland due to her being the star. (Sadly, it didn't make it any better. As Doris Day sang, "Que sera, sera.") 

But, yes, Stoker is an accomplishment. Start getting excited for an incredibly fun, yet perverse and, more importantly, powerful piece of work that awaits you come March 1, when this artful slice of insanity is unleashed upon screens worldwide.

It's safe to start doing cartwheels now.


(P.S. Also, a "hell yeah!" shout out to Twitch's Festivals Editor Ryland Aldrich, as well as Charlie and Sara at the Rose Wagner Center in Salt Lake City for making darned sure I didn't miss this one due to the high demand for seats and confusion in tickets. A "Hell no!" shout out to the Sundance attendee who seemed to come from even more privilege than the characters on-screen, who insisted on chuckling through every delicately brutal moment of Stoker. I only wish India and her trusty No. 2 pencil were around to handle the situation. See the trailer below and you'll know what I mean!)
Around the Internet:
  • The Reef

    Not a single mention of Wentworth Miller? If this is anyone's vision, it's his.

  • Ard Vijn

    No, it's his story and a damn good one too. But the visual aspect is very much Park Chan-wook!

  • Ard Vijn

    Fantastic film, loved it. Never knew it was produced by Ridley Scott until I saw the credits (I clearly haven't been paying attention...), and Harmony Korine has a small supporting role in it as well.

  • Michael_Douglas_Foreskin

    Harmony Korine is one quite a character on and off the cameras.. I'm even more intrigued to watch this film!!!

  • Saw this yesterday as press screening at IFFR, where Stoker will have its international premiere as closing film of the fest. Absolutely loved it!! Interesting tibdid which I think not everyone will know: Stoker was written by Mr Prison Break Wentworth Miller.

  • stwsr

    Those of us who are regular Twitch readers knew that a long time ago.

  • Sharon_Stone's_Taint

    God I hope this gets released here in my side of town!

  • Art Vandelay

    Me too. Half the time a movie like this gets released I have to drive an hour to see it. I need to move.

  • Sebo McPowers

    I found Thirst immensley boring and a low for Park. After the first sighting, I hated Cyborg. The second time around it wasn`t so bad anymore.

    I`m not really hyped for Stoker cause all the trailers seemed rather conventional and not very interesting. Let´s hope the film itself will be better.

  • stwsr

    I hated Cyborg. Boring and dumb.

  • CHUD

    Thrist was a fantastic movie, and I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK was actually pretty good, too. Not to mention that Night Fishing is a mini-masterpiece. I just can't comprehend someone needing to be wary of, or thinking that Park had been doing poorly lately.

    Also, saying that you don't want to give a spoiler by giving away the twists, is a spoiler unto itself.

  • Sean Smithson

    THIRST, while not a "bad movie" by any means was bogged down by it's own weight and length. It didn't flow like some of Park's other efforts.

    Opinions are just that...opinions. They are subjective.

  • CHUD

    I understand what you mean, and I've heard that complaint from others, but usually those others think all Korean movies are too lengthy. The thing is, I think Park archived exactly what he set out to achieve, in that he has said repeatedly that he wants the audience to be exhausted after viewing one of his films. He wants his audience to feel his movies both emotionally and physically so that you can feel accomplished leaving the theater-- like you've been taken on a journey. That's how I felt after Thirst.

  • Sean Smithson

    Great points CHUD. The name escapes me, but the novel it's based on is also NOT a vampire novel by any stretch, or even remotely horror, yes?

    And yeah, no worries about me thinking Korean movies are too long, or "weird", or "dry" at times. Not the case here. I DO however plan on revisiting THIRST for a 3rd time to see if it affects me differently now. I like doing that, going back and giving films I didn't love the first couple of times yet anbother shot to work their way into my brain. Same with music. SOmetimes the stuff you don't like much at first and have a hard time connecting to, turn out to be very rewarding in the end.

    Though I agree with Todd about the disjointed nature of THIRST.

    STOKER on the other hand, flows. I recommend watching it as an AMERICAN piece of filmmaking though. This is a melding of forces both filmwise and culturally. :)

  • To me, each act of Thirst feels like it belongs to a completely different movie. While they each have some amazing stuff it felt like in terms of the overall whole the different parts were competing with each other rather than supporting each other.

  • Sean Smithson

    Oh, and the trailer gives away more than I do, even with me mentioning not wanting to give away spoilers. So you better not watch that either.

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