Park Chan-wook | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R
Director Chan-wook “Oldboy” Park makes his English-language debut with this modern-Gothic thriller from the pen of Wentworth “yes, the guy from Prison Break” Miller.
When well-to-do architect Richard Stoker dies on his daughter’s 18th birthday, he leaves said insular daughter India (Mia “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” Wasikowska) stuck in their Tennessee mansion with her unbeloved mother (Nicole “the face behind the nose” Kidman). At the wake, both are surprised by the arrival of Charlie (Matthew “Ozymandias” Goode), Richard’s brother who Evelyn has never met and India has never even heard of. Nonetheless, he’s all charm and good manners, though when he moves into their home he begins to build up a slightly creepy relationship with Evelyn, and essentially stalks India. The Stokers’ housekeeper clearly knowns something about him, but then she disappears; and Richard and Charles’ Aunt Gwendolyn turns up wanting a word with Evelyn. Just what is going on with Uncle Charlie that everyone apart from India seems to know about?
And I’ve already said too much, maybe. Stoker isn’t all about its mystery and its twists — it’s at least as much about its carefully constructed Gothic mood; but part of that is the mystery, so, y’know. Indeed, it’s so moody and atmospheric that it seems to turn some viewers off. It’s certainly not thrill-a-minute, and it has a very particular pace and tone. I’m going to keep coming back to the word Gothic, because that really is the best word for it; whether that should be “modern Gothic” or “neo-Gothic” or “Southern Gothic” or what, I don’t know, but it’s definitely Gothic — with little more than cosmetic changes, I’m sure the story could be shunted back to a crumbling pile in 19th Century England. So precise is the mood of this secluded household, it’s kind of weird when, a little while in, we get to see India’s place of education: a typical US high school. In another film I might call this sudden change of locale a misstep, a breaker of tone, but in the world Park has created it just feels like a point of contrast.
Visually, Stoker is peerless. It doesn’t scream “beauty” at you, but the shot composition, Chung-hoon Chung’s photography, and Nicolas De Toth’s editing are all exceptional. The sound design is incredible too, with judicious use of ultra-heightened effects to imitate India’s skill for hearing small things others maybe miss. Finally, the music is perfection. A piano duet composed by Philip Glass is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, but Clint Mansell offers a doom-laden score, of a piece with his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (both of which I think I’ve written of my admiration for sometime previously), and there are some choice songs too: I’d never heard Summer Wine by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood before, but it fits the film like a glove, as well as being fantastic in its own right; and Emily Wells’ Becomes the Color slugs in with a kind of perfect dissonance to the musical style to that point. A comment on iCheckMovies used the word “sumptuous” for all of this, and that seems apt.
I have a feeling “not for everyone” may be one of the most overused phrases on this blog, but, if so, I think that’s for good reason: some of the best movies are “not for everyone”. We may not agree on what those movies are, but that’s kind of the point: they fit our own individual tastes, not “everyone’s”. Stoker undoubtedly doesn’t have easy mass appeal — it’s got a 6.9 on IMDb — and even some people open to its charms deem it to only be style over substance. I don’t think it’s wholly lacking in the latter, though if you’re looking for some Significance then I don’t know if you’ll find it — it’s an artistically-made Gothic thriller, not a soul-bearing artistic portrait of humanity. And as for the style… well, I’ve already talked about that. Whether you can have “style” for style’s sake, or whether it needs to be in aid of something, is a debate for another day. Here, it is in aid of something: amping up the Gothicism of the inherently Gothic story, which in other hands could have just became any-old present-day-set family thriller.
Describing something as “an acquired taste” might well be another phase I’ve used often, especially as it’s essentially a synonym for “not for everyone”. Nonetheless, that’s what I’ll go for here. Stoker will most decidedly not appeal to all palates, but for the right viewer, it’s a dark, moody, sensuous, Gothic delight.
The UK TV premiere of Stoker is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 30th, at 9pm.
It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.