There’s a long line of tradition in cinema of anti-heroines – suppressed females seduced into the carnal chutzpah of ultra-violence – that precedes the arrival of Stoker, Korean maestro Chan-wook Park’s transition into the English-language filmmaking. Think about Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Natural Born Killers and Carrie – all exhibiting psychologically fractured female psyches waiting to unleash a hellish tirade of pitch-black nihilism. So anybody comparing Stoker to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 American suburban thriller Shadow of a Doubt is obviously being misled. Screenwriter Wentworth Miller (he of Prison Break fame) uses the classic Hitchcock premise in the dynamics of Stoker – handsome uncle arrives in town and along with him, a baggage of mystery and dread that arouse the suspicion of his niece. Both men are even called ‘Uncle Charlie’, but the similarities end there. What Stoker morphs into is something decidedly darker, a more disturbingly macabre, malevolent and erotically charged study of moral transgression featuring a central female protagonist whose burgeoning sexuality serves as a red hot button. It takes an amoral uncle to act as a trigger.
It’s no surprise Park chose a screenplay as this, which contains very much the cinematic elements that help define his name in the arthouse circuit – the savagery of Oldboy, the emotional acuity of Lady Vengeance and the sexual depravity of his vampire-flick Thirst – all present in Stoker. Such heady mix could have turned the entire show into high camp, but Park presents a supreme control of formality, allowing his dark arts to simmer underneath the gorgeously realised visuals and the tension to build up rather than boil over. It’s a masterclass in visual storytelling – with Park, along with his cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, employing almost every technique in the book, with artfully staged shots that put many other director-cinematographer collaborations to shame. Watch Nicole Kidman’s hair dissolve into fields of grass. It’s a stunner.
And while the screen oozes with stylish sophistication, it’s down to a perfectly cast trio of damningly exquisite actors who ratchet up this tale of domestic/erotic tug-of-war. Matthew Goode channels an American Psycho-era Christian Bale, black malice and hints of psychopathic sadism lurking beneath those dashing charms, pristine trousers and dapper shirts. Nicole Kidman excels in a role that seems to be tailored to her frostiness, impeccable as the ice-cold bitch of a mother, who thaws throughout the film, pulling off a heart-wrenching character arc more akin to the sexually frustrated, fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s a role that could have easily been overblown, but Kidman subtly underplays it – the pain, longing and frustration cracking through her doll-like surface. But this is really Mia Wasikowska’s show, the Stoker family’s most fascinating character. Her India is loaded with chock-full of contradictions – innocent yet cunning beyond her years, virginal yet seething with lurid desires, loyal yet rebellious in nature – and Wasikowska keeps her ambiguous at every turn. It’s a stunningly precise performance, almost scarily studied and sinister in her authority of the character. There’s a standout sequence that will make your head spin; India plays a piano duet with her Uncle Charlie, with a chilling, operatic harmony (Philip Glass, natch) that escalates into India’s sexual rapture. There’s nary a word spoken, but it speaks volumes about India’s attraction to a twisted sort of reality lashed with crimson danger and sadistic violence, like a moth to a flame. Where uncles like Charlie would gleefully watch nieces like India burn.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Chan-wook Park | CAST: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver | SCREENPLAY: Wentworth Miller | PRODUCER: Fox Searchlight/Indian Paintbrush | RUNNING-TIME: 98 mins | GENRE: Drama/Thriller | COUNTRY: USA