One of the more highly anticipated films of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was Stoker, the first English-language feature from cult fave Chan-wook Park (the highly regarded Vengeance trilogy, including Oldboy). Despite a heavyweight cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Dermot Mulroney, Stoker still manages to retain Park’s distinctive fingerprints, indicating that even the Hollywood system can’t quell his particular brand of creativity. It may be slow, but it’s one hell of a good-looking movie.
When patriarch Richard (Mulroney) is killed in a mysterious accident, the wealthy, reclusive Stoker family struggles to pick up the pieces and move on. Distant from her workaholic husband, wife Kidman mourns the loss through sullen self-absorption, paying little attention to teenage daughter Mia Wasikowska, who spends most of the movie rocking that whole petulant Wasikowska thing. When Richard’s brother Charlie unexpectedly arrives for the funeral and announces his intention to move in with the family, the resulting mind games begin to corrode the Stokers, particularly niece Wasikowska, who feels strangely attracted to her uncle despite her best instincts.
British actor Matthew Goode plays the pivotal role of “Uncle Charlie”––in a presumed reference to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which also featured a mmysteriousUncle Charlie come home to visit––a glinty-eyed seducer of women who is never quite what he seems. After a handful of flirtatious exchanges with Kidman, Uncle Charlie’s gaze eventually drifts to young Wasikowska, with whom he forges an even deeper connection. Once a dark secret is shared, it becomes even harder for Wasikowska to escape the influence of her increasingly malevolent uncle.
Stoker is an extremely slow-starter, a contemplative thriller that holds back the genre elements until the second half. As a murder mystery, it ranks as merely solid. But it’s virtually impossibly to overstate the beauty of Park’s visuals here. The rich color palette, captured with the assistance of longtime cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, is nothing less than breathtaking. Virtually any still image from the film could be framed and hung as a masterpiece. While it may lack the dark intensity of Park’s previous projects, Stoker is the textbook definition of an art film.