Poll: Stoker - A Movie-Man Review...

The first thing to say about Stoker is that it's a rather polarising film. Viewers will vary in their enjoyment, dependent on whether you're into creepy psychological thrillers that switch between moments of tension and philosophical commentary, something most audiences won't be so keen on. I myself fall into that category, and it's a shame Stoker was released right around awards season, because the glut of blockbusters we've recently had diverts too much attention away from what is ultimately a unique and kind of genius production.

Stoker is the story of a young woman called India, whose father Richard Stoker has just died in an apparent car accident two states away. At the funeral she meets his never mentioned brother, Uncle Charlie, who immediately takes a strange interest in India, while the recently widowed Eve Stoker takes a similarly unhealthy interest in her brother-in-law Charlie. What follows is a highly charged, highly sexual, highly tense thriller that explores the damaged minds of each of the trio and their own interpretations of blood being thicker than water.

Mileage may vary, of course, but the driving force of Stoker lies in the interaction between characters. There's a very distinct chemistry underlying every aspect of every conversation, every action that anybody performs. Nothing is left to chance, and the cast play their roles with style and skill. A small leading cast that effectively carry the weight of the entire movie on their shoulders nevertheless do so without any issues, and they draw you in to exploring just what lies beneath the minds of everyone involved.

Stoker is the first English language film to come from Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, but the style is nevertheless a perfect accompaniment to his earlier works. There's little wonder he's known as the Hitchcock of our generation when you consider Stoker has a lot in common with Hitchcock's own works. Indeed, his seminal masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt was the starting point for Stoker's script, but the similarities soon take a very strange turn in the opposite direction, and the audience is left guessing right until the end. Every so often a new twist in the tale is answered, only to raise further questions. Characters don't react the way we'd expect them to, but nothing is unbelievable - it's a testament to the world created, the small and personal space inside which a wider story is explored, that we can sort of understand the motivations behind India and Charlie's actions, yet know almost nothing about either of them. In a way they are the focus of a film that takes cues from the early classics of one of our most beloved filmmakers, yet turns into an engaging (if disturbing) exploration of the human psyche on its own terms. What may surprise you, however, is how well the script stands considering the writer. Wentworth Miller, best known for his role on TV's Prison Break, is apparently something of a screenwriter as well, and his work on Stoker has pushed him, despite his use of a pseudonym, into the limelight as one of a number of rising stars behind the camera as much as in front.

Symbolism is paramount throughout, too, with a dark and ambient atmosphere pervading the entire runtime, but there are moments when the story feels like a more sinister Addams Family sequel. Mia Wasikowska portrays India as a very 'Wednesday Addams' type of person at times, delving into a morbid yet strangely innocent personality as she learns more about her newly discovered uncle. Charlie, on the other hand, has a very clear vibe of Patrick Bateman running through him, Matthew Goode playing a man on the very edge of sanity. It's clear from the start there's something wrong about him, but every answer we get comes loaded with new complications, like a series of Hitchcock films in tandem leading to a satisfying whole. Despite the similarity of the portrayals to existing characters from more established movies, it never really feels like a copy, each actor bringing an element of their own interpretation to the final product. The one weak link in the acting triumvirate that make up the core cast would potentially be Nicole Kidman as India's mother, Eve - it doesn't feel like she's doing much more than the same cookie-cutter role already seen in so many of her other roles, from The Golden Compass to The Others. Certainly her work here isn't bad, as such, but it just feels like more of the same, when we've seen her in so many more diverse and interesting roles in the past. Nevertheless, the overall quality of the cast avoids being diminished even when the story drags on just a little.

That's another point that needs to be made here. Stoker is aimed at an audience that doesn't mind waiting for things to happen. Certain scenes move quickly, while some move slow enough that the good work of earlier is undone. Pacing isn't a problem overall, but it can be annoying for those already finding the movie tough to follow. Another aspect, it seems, of the polarising nature of this film. That being said, Chan-wook's use of symbolism and his tendency to flick back and forth between characters illustrates a stark contrast between the personalities and underlying motivations of the major players here. We have Charlie on one side, Eve on the other, drawn together despite their opposite natures, and India caught in the middle. This sets the scene for the brutal and highly charged displays of suspense that make this film worth watching.

Ultimately, you'll either love Stoker, or you won't - an obvious conclusion I suppose, but no less apt. Erring just on the side of independent despite a well-known cast and mainstream release, it's maybe not to everyone's taste, but if you're a fan of psychological suspense or just really big into Hitchcock then it's well worth watching.

My ranking - 4/5

Good review, but I'd avoid using the word 'objective' when it comes to criticism.

EDIT - Well, that'll be the first time someone's taken my advice. Kind of makes this post a little irrelevant. Ho hum.

I want to see this so bad. But it's not playing anywhere near me!


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