The murder/thriller Stoker is one part weird, another part straight up Cray-Cray. But it's good.
Of the strangest films of all time, one must place the zany The Dark Backward or even the mother of weirdness Begotten at the top. Yet a movie doesn't need to feature a hand growing out of your back, or depict the beginning of the world devoid of any comprehensible speaking lines to compete with these top performers. It's in this off light of comparison that the Nicole Kidman film Stoker settles in, offering itself as a strong candidate; sensually violent, completely unapologetic in its depictions, and cleverly directed, Stoker will infuriate some with its plodding but amaze many more with its disturbing storytelling and terrific acting.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) has just buried her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney, J. Edgar) after he perished in a violent car accident. Atop a nearby hill in the cemetery stands Richard's brother Charlie (Matthew Goode, Watchmen), who's recently arrived after a long trip overseas. He's immediately taken with Richard's widow Evelyn (Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut), whose sexy-stylish demeanor is the complete opposite to India's independent dress and saddle shoes which Richard used to buy her every birthday. Soon, Charlie and Evelyn develop a strong and odd sexual attraction to one another, leaving everyone ill at ease, including the aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook), who's not just there for the funeral. She has a message (and a warning) for India, but Charlie won't hear of it and soon Gwendolyn mysteriously disappears. As Charlie's plan unfolds, both mother and daughter begin to fall for him, forcing the two into an uneasy and bitter struggle for his attention. As India learns she is Charlie's true goal, the details of his perfect life are revealed thanks to a locked drawer in Richard's study. The question is, will India uncover the truth before Charlie's manipulative and murderous reach consumes her and Evelyn?
Without giving much more away - as any spoilers would surely ruin the reveals - Stoker is like a car accident we can't stop watching, unfolding its voyeuristic fetishism before us while challenging the audience to look the other way. Those who stick with it are in a for a masterfully-shot and acted production, thanks to the direction of Chan Wook-Park (Thirst). His off-centered scenes (India spinning on something in a park that you never see, or a conversation shot from the least likely angle) take away any perceived drabness to what is certainly an early-going slow burn. Credit that to television actor-turned-writer Wentworth Miller, as he digs deep into the human need for belonging, crafting a trim but savage tale about obsession and the lengths people are willing to take. Stoker takes a decidedly odd angle, with scenes of spiders crawling all over India's legs and upper thighs and India herself openly expressing sexual desire over the appearance of Charlie. We see Wasikowska in a completely different light, as if Park has awakened some deeply darkened part of her, which now makes any previous acting gig seem pale by comparison. Kidman is her usual stunning beauty, matched only by her fascinating choices for projects and the cool manner she brings to odd, while Goode's creepy smile smacks us around with a quiet intensity that we can never completely wash away, raising family dysfunction to a whole new level.
Although early pacing feels snail's pace, my only issue surrounds the way the film's violent ending unfolded, which seemed out of place with what we knew about the characters and their loyalties to one another. I wasn't surprised by the violence itself, just the choices some of our actors made in committing them. But Park more than makes up for this inconsistency, delivering a powerful film that sneaks up to you before bashing you over the head with a shovel. The experience won't be for everyone, but those who decide to take the journey be warned: Stoker is memorizing a bit haunting, and every bit of an uncomfortable drama as we'll see this year. And it's OK with that. Stoker is rated R for nudity and violence and has a runtime of 99 minutes.
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