Park Chan-wook‘s Stoker is the sort of film that is nearly impossible to surmise. It’s about serial killers and human nature, doused in Southern Gothic. It’s a DNA experiment meant to combine Alfred Hitchcock and Tennessee Williams. And though maybe the story is a little less interesting when it’s all summed up, Park directs the living hell out of it, making for one of the most stylish and evocative thrillers in ages.

The Players

The Plot:

India Stoker (Wasikowska) is a strange girl whose father has died in a terrible accident. At the funeral her uncle Charlie (Goode) shows up and intends to stay a while. This is okay with India’s mom Evelyn (Kidman), as she’s already lonely, and has been lonely for a while. But other family members don’t want Charlie around as he’s got a dark secret, and through him, India comes to understand her nature.

The Good:

  • Camera Camera Camera: One of the biggest problems with modern cinema is that the language of television has stealthfully crept in and taken over as the default setting. This may be understandable in comedies, but some of the biggest movies now are directed by people who don’t use the placement of the camera to full effect. And though the thriller lends itself more readily to stylish choices, you can tell a story by where the camera is, and too many directors now are happy to do big sequences with coverage.  Watching Stoker, you get the sense that every time the camera moves, every cut, every location was chosen with purpose. And it’s a delight to watch someone have fun with that, to make the viewer alert that you’re in the hands of a master.
  • Performances: Everyone brings their A-game. Nicole Kidman is as alert and on point as she’s been in years, and Wasikowska does a good job of showing the layers of her goth character. But the standout is Matthew Goode, who’s had some high profile roles in films that didn’t work, but here he gets to bring his A game to project where he stands out. As a description “Sexy and disturbing” could be applied to any of the lead characters.
  • Southern Gothic: Part of the fun of the film is the discovery, so you want to go in as clean as you can when it comes to spoilers, but where the film goes and how far it could go is one of it’s central charms. It keeps pushing further, so much so that during a climatic struggle, I felt like the narrative could have killed off any number of the protagonists. And that sense that the film could go anywhere and still be just as interesting is one of its greatest pleasures.
  • That Dissolve: If you see the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s one of the greatest dissolves in cinema history.

The So-So:

  • What’s it All About?: The pleasure of watching Stoker is so great that it’s easy to give the film a pass for everything else. Is there much meat on the bone in what it’s saying? No, not really. It doesn’t say much of anything. Then again, neither do most comic book films, that’s not the point. Stoker is consistently engaging, and even if it doesn’t make much of a statement on humanity, etc. It’s one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in the last year.

Overall:

A visual gift, Stoker is the sort of film that serves as a delicious aperitief. It makes you hungry for more films that know how to work an audience with more than just CGI thrills, but by investing you in where the camera is and is choreographed like a musical.  If you love the language of filmmaking, this is an absolute must-see.

The Rating:  9.5/10

Stoker opens in Limited release March 1.

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Trailer: