It's tempting, when discussing Park Chan-Wook's Stoker, to focus more on describing just how technically perfect a film it is, rather than to really dig into the story or its themes. To talk about how beautiful the film looks, but also how wonderful it sounds: It has some of the most eerie, by turns haunting and terrifying sound design I've seen in a film for quite some time. It is an immaculately assembled film that demonstrates why Park is considered one of the best and brightest filmmakers to come out of South Korea. It's one of the best looking and sounding horror films to come out of America in years.
However, using this approach usually means that the film isn't very good, the old rule of thumb being that if you're talking about the cinematography, you were probably bored by everything else. The reverse is true in this case. I spent pretty much the whole film completely entranced by both the film's technical aspects and its story, which complemented and informed each other brilliantly. However, while the story is told in a way which is gleeful in its perversity, it is also a little slight, and talking too much about it only makes it seem more so. It's a film of mood, theme and atmosphere rather than plot, and so it's much easier to talk about the aspects of the film that contribute to the first three things than the fourth.
Not that the plot isn't interesting, it just feels more like set-up to explore some very sordid themes. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is an introverted girl in mourning. Her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) has recently passed away in a car accident, leaving her alone with her brittle, icy mother (Nicole Kidman) in their large, cavernous house. Into their little bell jar of grief and animosity comes India's uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), a man who she has never met, but who she finds herself increasingly fascinated by. As Charlie stays with them for an indefinite amount of time, much of which he spends with her mother, he seems to awaken something dark and primal in India, something which threatens to spill out and hurt someone.
The premise alone sets the film up as a spin on Shadow of a Doubt, with some Night of the Hunter mixed in for good measure. However, Stoker doesn't so much play on Hitchcock's film as it does completely explode it, bringing the roiling sexual tension to the fore and making subtext text in glorious fashion. The script by Wentworth Miller (an actor probably best known for playing the lead in the TV series Prison Break) is packed with quiet lines loaded with meaning, and the plotting, while straightforward, has plenty of room for both moments of quiet dread and sudden, disquieting violence.
Throughout his career, and especially since Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park Chan-Wook has reveled in his position as one of world cinema's greatest purveyors of elegant schlock, and Stoker falls firmly in that category. The formal precision on display is utterly masterful, and it's a testament to Park's ability that he can make something as simply as a spider crawling up someone's leg both menacing and almost painfully sensual, yet the story itself is mired in far murkier territory, touching on the connection between sex, death and violence in a way which is as exhilarating as it is deeply unsettling. Though the film overall is a lot more subdued than some of Park's other work - there's violence, but nothing as brutal as Oldboy, and there's sexuality, but nothing as exuberant as Thirst - it's no less enjoyable for the conviction it shows in exploring the themes, no matter where they might lead.
It helps that he has a trio of actors at the heart of the film who are pitch perfect for their roles and the off-balance tone of the film. Kidman gets to be both unhinged and sexy in a way that she hasn't for quite some time, displaying both unvarnished hate and lust in equal measure throughout, while Goode has never been better than he is here as the always charming, always unsettling Charlie. It's Wasikowska who dominates, though, giving a performance that is fearless, abrasive and sympathetic, demonstrating why she is one of the best young actresses working today. It takes great skill to look as delicate and otherworldly as she does, yet also convey a sense of undeniable, constant menace.
It is possible to quibble with the story of Stoker, which is very slight and pretty easy to predict, but to do so would be pretty churlish considering that it doesn't set itself out as a film packed with twists or intrigue. It aims to unnerve and entertain in equal measure, and it does so with aplomb. At the very least, it's comforting to realise that even when he switches country and language, Park Chan-Wook remains a seriously creepy filmmaker, undaunted in either his style or his ambition.