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Stoker (2013, Chan-wook Park)

Oldboy has long been a favorite of mine. Chan-wook Park’s direction is risky and transgressive, and invokes a newfound awareness of social and moral grey areas that have not been treaded on in such a dangerous fashion in many years (though Gaspar Noe’s nihilistic Irreversible comes to mind). But since then, Park has created a career out of sidestepping stereotypes and societal norms. With his newest film, Stoker, he is constructing a different sort of film. Though far more classical in its execution, Stoker is a gothic piece of storytelling in the most traditional sense. Aesthetically and technically, this might be his most sensual and visceral film. While Oldboy induces a sense of disillusionment and confusion, Stoker is pure dread. and suspense. There are a number of directorial and literary references sprinkled throughout the film. Hitchcock is easily the most prominent figurehead that will undoubtedly be named in many reviews and criticisms. Even though Park’s direction and technical work are phenomenal, his material has let him down. Penned by first time writer Wentworth Miller (who starred in the T.V. show Prison Break), the script doesn’t quite hit the same high marks set by the direction. It’s merely serviceable, and that’s the problem.

Miller’s script is even reminiscent of earlier films, where a mysterious figure suddenly appears and wreaks quiet and unnoticed havoc on a simple family. One film that springs to mind is The Night of the Hunter. Though thematically different, they hit a lot of the same noir-ish notes. In Stoker, the story concerns an uncle who appears after the untimely death of the father. India (Mia Wasikowska) is an only child, who develops a fascination with funerals and death following his demise. She’s sort of like Wednesday Adams in her comedic obsession with darkness. Her mother, Evelyn Stoker (played by Nicole Kidman), does her best to connect with her daughter. They clearly have little or nothing in common. But almost immediately, her Uncle Charlie (played by Matthew Goode) shows up one day in order to help them cope. His presence is ominous enough, with his dark Wayfarers. He’s seemingly educated, well-dressed, and has a talent for cooking. This is recipe enough for suspicion.

Long-time collaborator and cinematography Chung-hoon Chung does great work here. This is perhaps his best cinematography to date. Park and Chung’ s insistence on a camera that seems to loom menacingly around our central characters, whose innocence and purity are contradicted by Uncle Charlie. While technically the film is exceedingly well-made, the script is unfortunately the weakest link in the chain. Perhaps the best actor/actress of the bunch is Nicole Kidman, but she is given very little to work with. Evelyn comes across as almost entirely secondary. She is a pawn for other characters to bounce off of and react, as opposed to her having any semblance of personality of her own. Matthew Goode shows little more than express a stable, deadpan expression that reveals or shows nothing beneath. He’s clearly miscast. Frustratingly enough, Stoker feels like an exercise in style rather than storytelling. Park’s intent is clear, however. They are meant to be a lily-white on the surface, while a dark underbelly bubbles underneath them, ready to show itself in the most violent of ways.

Unfortunately, Stoker doesn’t quite reach the heights of something like Oldboy or even Thirst. Instead its caught in the exact place where it insists that it stays: the middle. Park’s direction is excellent, but the lackadaisical writing doesn’t match up well with him. It often felt like the style was covering up for the lack of depth in the material, and the numerous literary and cinematic references were just coating an empty interior. But in spite of the problematic nature of the film, it still somehow remains enjoyable and very watchable. This is most likely due to Park’s love for the material and his utterly distinct way of directing a film. I’m afraid this review will sound far harsher than it should, but that is in due part to my disappointment with the film. However, one could arguably say that this might be the most watchable of Chan-wook Park’s films. It’s certainly easier to digest and serves more as “entertainment” than his other films do. Sadly, this was a little dispiriting for me. I certainly expected a lot more.