starring: Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver
screenplay: Wentworth Miller
directed by: Chan-wook Park
MPAA: Rated R for disturbing violence and sexual content.
A father dies, and his estranged brother comes to stay with the grieving widow and bereft child. Hamlet this is not, but in Stoker, director Chan-wook Park and first-time screenwriter Wentworth Miller effectively meld aspects of both it (imagine if mad Ophelia had been Claudius’s daughter) and a variety of cinematic influences, ranging from American Beauty to Blue Velvet to the best of Hitchcock.
In the film’s opening sequence, lit candles on a birthday cake are abruptly snuffed out, and we come to find out why: on her 18th birthday, India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska) father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney, in flashbacks), has been killed in a car accident.
During the funeral, India stands stoically besides her fragile mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman, whose white-board smooth face makes her appear eerily younger than her teenage daughter), while gazing from a distance in a pair of expensive shades is Charlie, Richard’s younger brother, of whom Evelyn, and especially India, have virtually no knowledge.
Charlie stays on after the funeral, moving into the Stoker home and assuming the role of man of the house, drinking red wine out of oversize goblets with Evelyn, cooking gourmet dinners, and ordering India to carry gallons of ice cream down to the typically creepy basement freezer.
India of course being a certain type of Sundance movie-heroine (the film premiered there in January) is a moody observer, prone to wearing saddle shoes, Victorian-style vintage dresses, and severely parted hair; she is immediately wary of her uncle, and the film spends a lot of time letting us watch her watch him and her mother together with a skeptical eye and with what at first seems like the overactive imagination of a sulky, affected teenager.
Only maybe India’s imagination isn’t overactive; maybe her concerns are justified, and despite the pretention of full-moon conversations on children’s play equipment, the requisite rain-soaked diner parking lot scene, and a ubiquitous walk along railroad tracks, the film finally turns into an utterly compelling psychological thriller and character study, thanks, in part, to some strong key performances.
Without revealing more, suffice to say that Matthew Goode (perhaps previously best known as Colin Firth’s golden-boy lover in A Single Man) here instead, while bearing a disconcertingly uncanny resemblance to Jason Priestly, creates an emotionally nuanced character that is worlds away from West Beverly’s all-American Brandon Walsh.
Mia Wasikowska brings a fresh angle to what could be considered an indie-film stereotype: the troubled, friendless, too-precious-for-her-time teenage girl. With both subtly and certainty, Wasikowska creates conflicting motivations and a complex inner life that takes the viewer the course of the film to truly discover. And the always outstanding Jacki Weaver is excellent in a small, but critical, role as Charlie and Richard’s Aunt Gwen.
Nicole Kidman is the only weak link; she seems not to know whether to play her part as comedic or dramatic, so instead turns in a performance that is erratic at best, and derivative at worst, moping through the film alternating between being a hostile Mommie Dearest or a languid femme fatale.
Finally, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s use of deep, saturated colors and lingering close-ups serves to amplify the notion that such a heightened, glossy veneer cannot possibly accurately reflect what is beneath it.
If you can stick with these characters through the long exposition, the film’s payoff will more than reward you. As India says to her uncle at one point, “We don’t need to be friends; we’re family.” And this is one family that’s worth watching.
Stoker opens in Bay Area theaters today.