Stoker: an almost accidental work of genius

Oldboy director Chan-wook Park’s English-language debut turns a derivative script into a striking movie.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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When it comes to crossing-over into the English-language market, international filmmakers have had a rocky time of late.

The end of last year saw Spanish filmmaker and purveyor of chilling, cerebral ghost tales, Juan Antonio Bayona, blanch his artistic palate with a saccharine, soft-focus, all-Brit drama about the Boxing Day tsunami, The Impossible. More recently, South Korean genre-hopping wunderkind Kim Ji-woon teamed up with Arnold Schwarzanegger for the governator’s inane, Johnny Knoxville-attendant comeback romp, The Last Stand. And now, seemingly primed to prove that filmmakers’ credibility always dies in threes, comes Chan-wook Park’s Stoker, which sees him follow in the footsteps of countryman Kim and hook-up with another muscle-bound franchise face – Wentworth Miller, star of Prison Break – for his English-language debut.

Miller, in his first foray into screenwriting, penned the script. With smacks of ‘please, take me seriously!’, the former pin-up has produced a paint-by-numbers pulp thriller with a highly derivative plot lifted from Hitchcock. But while this hardly seems a worthy project for the director who gave the world the fiendishly inventive Oldboy, the mediation between the fledgling novice and the esteemed master produces a work of almost accidental brilliance.

While this isn’t, as the title may lead you to believe, anything to do with the seminal Dracula author, the story is mired in Gothic convention. Stoker here refers to a wealthy family who live in modern day Tennessee, yet are somehow caught in an old-world time warp. At the beginning of the film, their weathered mansion, ensconced in thorny, overgrown grounds, plays host to the wake of the family patriarch (Dermot Mulrooney), killed in a suspicious car crash on the eighteenth birthday of his daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska).

With heavy nods to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, India’s mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up after the funeral. Handsome and attentive, he soon salves the wounds of his bereft sister-in-law (Nicole Kidman), making up both for the husband she’s lost and the intimacy their long estrangement had denied her. He soon moves into the house and takes his place at the head of the table.

Going into a stern, self-imposed period of mourning – complete with grey Victorian ‘mourning attire’ – India is revolted, but finds it hard to resist Charlie’s gravitational charm. People begin to disappear, Charlie’s prim, proper, pastel-clad presence seeming to unleash a family curse that will soon bring about the fall of the house of Stoker. As the body count rises, India sets out to unravel the mystery of her Uncle only to uncover a terrifying secret of her own.

Heavily stylised, the film’s look goes far beyond Park’s usual macabre aesthetic into something almost cartoonish, borderline Wes Anderson. Kidman is the prickly, fading beauty, whose hair isn’t just blonde but actually yellow, while Wasikowska appears as a teenage Morticia Addams. Delivering so-so dialogue with stony faces and a knowing sense of artifice, the cast seem almost to be cocking a wry smile at the hackneyed story they’ve found themselves in. Each expected turn becomes unexpected, as we’re constantly waiting for a twist befitting this ironic tone, something that is hinted at but doesn’t ever arrive.

Accomplice in the doublethink is the cinematography. Enlisting his long-serving director of photography, Chung-hoon Chung, Park’s imagery casts a potent spell. A comb passing through Kidman’s hair seamlessly blends into long grass blowing in the wind; a trip through the basement turns into a labyrinthine adventure comprising a rich, hypnotic aesthetic that lulls us the viewer into a state of uncertainty.

Even as things get gory, the tone remains unsettlingly sumptuous, luring us into a sexed-up, sociopathic world. It’s all rather surface – the turned-up melodrama cleansing the scenes of anything too stinging and leaving us emotionally removed from the characters – but that’s beside the point. Amid the abounding faux-Freudian visual metaphors, there’s plenty to try and pick apart, but its best left as an unadulterated, visceral experience.

On these terms alone, Stoker is a work of near-genius. Park manages to turn an unimaginative script from a green screenwriter into a gloriously nasty, formidable and unpredictable entry into English-language film.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Stoker here:

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