Film review: Bone-Chilling ‘Stoker’ a Worthy Successor to Hitchcock

Stoker 1“You know I’ve wondered why it is we have children,” Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman) muses at one point in Park Chan-wook’s bone-chilling Stoker. “And the conclusion I’ve come to is – we want someone to get it right this time.”

Well, looked at one way the well-to-do Stokers may have succeeded beyond their wildest – and I do mean wildest – dreams with young India (Mia Wasikowska). Her 18th birthday marks the departure of her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) in a fiery car crash and the arrival of oh-so-smooth Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Yes, that young woman is going places – though perhaps you might want not want to be where she’s going.

Stoker 3The Korean director known for his “Vengeance Trilogy” has said he was inspired to become a filmmaker by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and there’s definitely a flavor of the “Master of Suspense” to his first English-language picture. The specific taste of Stoker is reminiscent of Shadow of a Doubt, down to the use of the name Charlie for Goode’s character, though first-time scripter Wentworth Miller (an actor best known for his role in the TV series “Prison Break”) with writing contributions by Erin Cressida Wilson takes the tale down a much darker, more unstable path (with bits of macabre humor and sexual stirrings that echo Hitchcockian tastes).

Stoker is set in Connecticut but was filmed in Nashville (Hillsboro High School and Cheekwood are locations locals will quickly pick out while watching the film) over 40 days in the fall of 2011. Music City-based talent is well represented – current “Nashville” player and former Tennessee Repertory Theatre Executive Artistic Director David Alford speaks the film’s first lines as the reverend that performs Richard’s funeral with the ear-pleasing tones familiar to Middle Tennessee theatergoers. His pleasant appearance is one of the roles filled by local actors – Peg Allen and Lauren Roman have a nice bit as whispering housekeepers – and there’s even an art-teacher cameo by filmmaker Harmony Korine, whose much-anticipated Spring Breakers hits screens nationally tomorrow.

Stoker 2The 23-year-old Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids are Alright, Jane Eyre) has certainly shown acting range beyond her years in her young career. Here she’s able to convey more with an eyebrow than many performers can with their entire bodies; her character’s usually-placid demeanor becomes one of this thriller’s scariest elements as the story unfolds.

Goode (Match Point, Brideshead Revisited, A Single Man) has often been part of the beautiful surroundings in various pictures. Here he gets the chance to play the smiling face of evil and he’s pitch-perfect in the role: Goode’s Charlie makes Norman Bates look like just another nerd with a mommy complex.

Stoker 4Kidman gives a riveting performance as the can-break-at-any-moment Evelyn (or “Evie” as she’s often called in the film). Her character is desperate for attention, and seemingly finds it with Charlie; at first her vulnerability is apparent but somewhat in check, but as the story unwinds we see her unravel.

The supporting players are first-rate and provide plenty for Wasikowska, Goode and Kidman to play with and against, including the Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver, whose character Gwendolyn knows her nephew Charlie is trouble; Phyllis Somerville, whose time is short but memorable as the faithful but all-too-knowledgeable Mrs. McGarrick; Alden Ehrenreich as Whip, who has his sights set on India; and Ralph Brown as a sheriff who may regret asking one question too many. There’s even a brief but pivotal appearance by Judith Godrèche, an actor brought to prominence by Benoît Jacquot, as a health-care professional (it would spoil things to be more specific).

Stoker 6The violence in Stoker is – and should be – disturbing, though it’s pretty tame by the director’s standards (no grisly ends for marine life nor any battery cables or razor wires used for violent purposes, to reference some gruesome sights in his previous films). Park and his longtime cinematography collaborator Chung-hoon Chung are used to longer shooting schedules in Korea; the shorter schedule here, combined with using a real house off Post Road in West Nashville as opposed to a set for most of the movie’s scenes, meant the elaborate camera movements they’re known for are less prevalent in this feature. That’s okay, though – as Park says in production notes for Stoker, “When such shots are used only in the most memorable way, it increases the tension.”

Adding to that tension is production design by Thérèse DePrez (Black Swan) that adds a foreboding note to even the most everyday objects and a haunting musical score by composer Clint Mansell, another Black Swan contributor. (One musical contribution Mansell didn’t make is a piano piece written for Stoker by Phillip Glass that fills a memorable scene with mounting unease as India and Charlie play a relationship-bonding duet.)

Stoker 8There’s apparently another 20 minutes in the international version of Stoker; I’d love to see what wasn’t included in the US release. Nevertheless the film is unnervingly spellbinding; I think Hitch himself would approve.

Stoker (www.foxsearchlight.com/stoker/) opens Friday (March 22) in Nashville at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.) – click on the theater link in this sentence for times. The run begins at 12:01 a.m. There’s a taped message from Nicole Kidman just for Belcourt audiences, a free glass of champagne for Belcourt members attending the first-day screenings and the raffle of a Elie Saab dress worn by Kidman in the movie for those attending the opening weekend (one entry per person, no purchase necessary to win; see box office staff for entry form if not automatically entered to win by purchasing a ticket). Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, 100 min. Directed by Park Chan-wook and written by Wentworth Miller with contributions by Erin Cressida Wilson. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver, Alden Ehrenreich, Lucas Till, Dermot Mulroney, Phyllis Somerville, Ralph Brown, and Judith Godrèche with David Alford, Harmony Korine, Peg Allen and Lauren Roman.

 

 

 

 

*Photos by Macall Polay courtesy Fox Searchlight.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman’s “The People vs Larry Flynt” among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).