While the name Stoker may immediately lead one to think vampires, think again. “Stoker” is an American gothic soap opera and dark coming-of-age film that benefits greatly from its chilling atmosphere and stellar performances by Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode.
When India's father is killed in a car accident, her mysterious, debonair uncle Charlie moves in with her and her mother Evelyn. India immediately senses there is something off with Charlie, that there’s something more sinister beneath his posh and urbane appearance. Mourning, confused and suffering teen angst, India is both attracted to and frightened by this wolf in Ralph Lauren clothing. Her mother, on the other hand, is easily swept into Charlie’s web. But what are Charlie’s true intentions and why is India’s aunt (Jackie Weaver) trying to warn her?
Renowned Korean director Chan-wook Park (“Oldboy”) brings his impressive visionary style to his first English-speaking film. You can easily run a knife through the thick, murky melodrama, which is the most enjoyable part about this drama. Like a soap opera, there is nothing subtle. The camera work is just as much a noticeable character as India, Evelyn and Charlie and every shot is meticulously staged and beautifully photographed.
“Stoker” is written by “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller, who does a marvelous job at setting up a disturbing situation, but a little more than halfway through the film comes the realization that the first half spent so much time building atmosphere that it has crossed the point of no return without actually taking us anywhere. This is Miller’s first screenplay, and by the time the film gets to its big reveal the only reaction left is, well… duh!
Though this is Chan-wook Park’s first English-speaking film, he gets some truly fine performances from his leads. Wasikowska is gripping from the start, exchanging her typically innocent, fragile roles for one as sharp as barbed wire. India is churning with dark desire beneath her ghostly appearance and Mia effortlessly strikes that emotional balance between a lost little girl and a young woman coming into her own.
Matthew Goode is suave as Uncle Charlie and he knows it. Every look Charlie throws toward India is brimming with seduction and deceit. If Goode wasn’t so adept at doing it, the performance would be too forced and comical, but he is a pro and his Uncle Charlie is both creepy and an absolute joy to watch.
Kidman, as Evelyn, delivers one of her more restrained performances. She, like India, is in mourning but looking for something exotic to spice up her gloomy existence. Kidman is nuanced and natural here, not over-doing Evelyn’s melancholy and not coming across as too reckless and desperate for Charlie’s affection. Her restraint is most welcome.
Furthermore, the soundtrack features an original song by Mansell and singer Emily Wells called “Becomes the Color,” but a major stand-out is the Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazelwood ballad “Summer Wine,” which is used over a lengthy scene with Charlie seducing Evelyn. Sinatra and Hazelwood’s duet is an intoxicating accompaniment to the on-screen game between Kidman and Goode.
When it comes down to it, “Stoker” is one of the best looking thrillers with its poetic cinematography and expansive sets, but it is ultimately weakened by a few empty verses.