Sundance '13: 'Stoker' is a Gorgeous, Suspenseful Hitchcockian Thriller
by Ethan Anderton
January 28, 2013
What happens when you throw Alfred Hitchcock into a blender with Chan-wook Park? You get Stoker, an ominous, outlandish, beautiful thriller with a flowing score that infects every part of the film. But while the film is certainly reminiscent of the legendary director behind such films as Vertigo, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, an uninspiring conclusion brings down the high brought on from the first two acts, including breadcrumbs that could have led to something greater. Thankfully, the misstep in the ending wasn't enough to detract from what is otherwise an eerie, suspenseful and impeccably photographed film.
At the beginning of our story, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is searching the vast landscape of her home for something. This could easily serve as the larger description of the theme of the film, but for now, it's meant literally. And as she finds the box that she's been searching for on what we realize is her birthday, we learn that her father (Dermot Mulroney) has passed away. At the funeral, India's Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) is introduced by her mother (Nicole Kidman), but this is the first time she's met him, and since India has never really cared for her mother, she's not really interested in making a connection.
However, Uncle Charlie is going to be sticking around for an undetermined amount of time, and that's when things get really weird. The ominous nature of the film is helped by a truly seductive and portentous score, and near perfect cinematography that often makes one scene flow right into the next. However, the mystery that unravels isn't nearly as satisfying as the path that leads to it. Mainly because the mind races at just what peculiarities Uncle Charlie might be up to as he hovers around the house, speaking so that you hang on every word. His personality traits are under a microscope by India who observes sights and sounds with pinpoint accuracy better than anyone (a trait that allows for some very impressive and immersing sound design), and so the audience is constantly trying to piece something together, only to have it waved in front of our faces in a simple ending.
But still, there's top notch performances from Wasikowska, who puts on her best quiet, odd girl face. The trick here is what's always rumbling underneath right in front of our noses. Meanwhile, Goode makes due with a near one-note performance with the exception of a flashback as the mystery begins to be unveiled. Finally, Kidman delivers a motherly performance that goes from matronly and frail to bitter and angry, a turn that is something to behold in one particular close-up. Stoker isn't subtle or shy, but that's part of the appeal in this thriller that is over the top, almost in the same way that all films were a bit melodramatic back in the days of Alfred Hitchcock. It's almost as if we're watching a film from another decade through a contemporary lens.
In addition, the film is quite erotic, with sexual tension that might make some squirm. It's an odd film, but it never quite goes for the gold that it waves in front of audiences throughout. The good news is that Park knows how to make the race to the end as pretty as possible, and his cast understood very well what he was trying to do. During the Q&A, Park said he was sad to learn another director had been given the Hitchcock film starring Anthony Hopkins, but this thriller in the same vein as the iconic director is leaps and bounds better than that story, and despite a flawed ending, Park delivers a stirring oddity full of spectacle and some of the most gorgeous music and cinematography put together on screen.
Ethan's Sundance Rating: 7.5 out of 10