The first thing that grabs you in Stoker is the opening title sequence. Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s English language debut presents its titles in a way that is reminiscent of both Panic Room and Zombieland, as the credits seem to exist in and interact with the world itself. Names appear and disappear behind a dress, fluttering slightly in the breeze. A cascade of tennis balls scatters letters across the court. The subtly kinetic feel of the opening titles serves to punch up the staid and detached, almost diorama-like images of Mia Wasikowska’s India Stoker attempting to find some meaning in a world wherein she just lost her father. It’s a striking credit sequence, and it does an excellent job of not only contrasting the movement of the titles with the stillness of India’s life, but it also sets the table visually for those of us who have not seen any of Park Chan-Wook’s previous work.
The story itself concerns India and her mother (Nicole Kidman) coming the grips with the death of the family patriarch (played in flashback by Dermot Mulroney), alongside the surprise arrival of an estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), so estranged that India did not even know he existed. There is clearly something sinister going on beneath the surface for both Charlie and India, and it becomes apparent quickly that no one is safe. Wentworth Miller (he of Prison Break fame) makes his screenwriting debut, and attempts to create a sort of modern Hitchcockian gothic/erotic horror/thriller chamber drama (that the uncle’s name is Charlie is a not even remotely veiled reference to Hitchcock’s masterpiece of uncles behaving badly, Shadow of a Doubt), which sure is a lot to juggle in one film, let alone in a first screenplay. The story itself is decent enough to hold your attention and keep the plot moving, but the real story, the real reason we’re in the theater in the first place, is the style. There is substance, but not enough substance to carry a film on its own. Luckily, Park Chan-Wook is more than up to the task of elevating the subject matter through sight and sound to something worthy.
Stoker is chock full of visual trickery beyond the opening credits, melding flashbacks, stealth dream sequences, unorthodox staging and bizarre cuts, including a particularly wonderful shot of Nicole Kidman’s hair that effortlessly dissolves into a tangle of grass and weeds from a forest scene in an invisible cut. The film is packed with such moments, but luckily they are never so ostentatious as to take away from the immersion into the world. But, to be honest, the aspect of Stoker that stuck with me the most is the sound design. Both India and Charlie have lines in the film that points out how they see and hear the world differently than others, and the sound design of the film serves to reinforce this off-kilter feel more than Park’s visual trickery. Every single sound is amplified into an aural assault mixed heavily to the forefront and dominating the proceedings, even taking precedent over a sumptuously spare and subtle collaborative score from Clint Mansell (with additional piano work from Philip Glass). The crackling of a hard boiled egg’s shell as India rolls it back and forth on the kitchen table, seemingly for an eternity. The sharpening of a pencil, shavings being wrung from the wood at an agonizingly deliberate pace. The slow, menacing scratch and friction of a belt being pulled from its loops. Even the clacking of the keys and thumping of a foot on the pedals of a piano somehow seems louder than the music these actions create. Nearly all of the tension of the film comes from its peerless sound design, evoking a constant sense of dread, particularly in its first two acts.
Matthew Goode hasn’t done a whole lot since 2009, the year of Watchmen and A Serious Man, and he is well cast here is a role that requires both an unearthly charisma combined with an underlying sense of danger and unpredictability. It’s difficult to imagine that Goode’s stature and facial structure being so similar to Psycho-era Anthony Perkins was not intentional. Charlie, much like Norman Bates, is a man who doesn’t seem to fit in the world, and finds a sense of kinship in the similarly dispossessed India, who must come to terms with her torrent of emotions, from mourning to dread to fear to curiosity to passion and everything in between. Indeed, Kidman’s Evelyn Stoker seems like the only character in the film that actually has hot blood running through her veins, and while the script does not give her particularly much to do, she has a fire to her character that reinforces the mood of the film as a pot that could boil over at any second, but obstinately persists in remaining stolid and sepulchral.
It’s a shame that the plotting and script are not stronger than they are; a better script could easily have made Stoker an early contender for some of the best films of the year, but it certainly feels like it was written by a novice. Miller pushes certain themes a little harder than he should, and leaves others that may deserve a little fleshing out (namely India’s background, which we easily could have gotten at least a somewhat better sense of without ruining her mystique) too underdeveloped. A surer hand could have created a better balance between plot and design, as well as lessening the blow of some movements of the plot that seemed overly contrived in a sort of “we need to get to this point, so let’s just make it happen regardless of organic motivation” way, which would have allowed for a more sublime cinematic experience and a better approximation of Hitchcock for the modern world. What we have is still decent, arguably a little more than decent even, and worthy in the merits of the visuals and the sound design alone. Much like last year’s Prometheus, Stoker works better on a visceral level than an intellectual one (at least from a story perspective), but there’s nothing wrong with that. What matters in a film like this is the feel. And those who want to sit back and enjoy the ride shouldn’t be disappointed.