Stoker movie review: Creepily beguiling Matthew Goode in Park Chan-wook’s generally well-made – yet less than satisfying – English-language debut
Left to stand alone for director Park Chan-wook and actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller’s psychological thriller, the title Stoker could refer to any number of things, including those relative to vampires, marijuana, or tandem bicycling, depending on one’s disposition. The author of Dracula is indeed a relevant reference, but in Park’s film Stoker just happens to be the surname of the family central to its narrative: Mother, father, daughter, uncle.
Even so, Miller’s screenplay reaches for a deeper identity that goes beyond family names to actual lineage – in fact, to the very genetics of the family itself. In other words, Stoker implies that some traits, however dark, are part of our nature. That’s hardly an original notion, but in a movie that is such a lovely blend of styles, it may matter little.
Indeed, Miller’s opaque literary dialogue in conjunction with Park’s strikingly poetic visuals result in a formidable presentation. Yet, even though Stoker’s haughty ambivalence about any number of social taboos will surely satisfy many, others will find the South Korean filmmaker’s first English-language effort decidedly vapid. I’m among the “others.”
Clever & pretty
Admittedly, I do love Stoker’s blend of confections and I don’t particularly mind its ambivalence. What bugs me about this Park-Miller collaboration is that it’s not really about anything.
Not that the movie must be about something. It’s simply that Stoker is one of those releases so weighted with anticipation, so draped in auspicious pedigree, that when you realize it’s only a fancy psychological thriller – clever and pretty, but nothing more – one can’t help but feel a little disappointed.
Having said that, I should add that this is more the fault of this critic’s anticipation than of the film’s failure to achieve its goals – which are less ambitious and fully realized – and should not weigh against it too heavily.
In Stoker, India (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18, her father (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a car accident, and her grieving mother (Nicole Kidman) has just introduced her to her uncle Charles, a man neither of them knew existed.
As played by Matthew Goode of Watchmen and A Single Man, Uncle Charles is a mysterious figure, at once alluring and creepy. In fact, all of the Stoker characters are both alluring and creepy. Even India’s cold mother, as played by Nicole Kidman, seems capable of just about anything, even though – if things are as the narrative suggests – she should be the one considered closest to “normal.”
In any case, Uncle Charles’ unexpected arrival is the event that upsets an already unstable situation.
Now, I should mention that Wentworth Miller’s screenplay indicates that Charles has suddenly arrived for the funeral, as opposed to his arrival having merely coincided with his brother’s demise. Either way, that’s problematic storytelling that fails to jive with the narrative as it unfolds later in the film.
By then, however, some will have become so entranced by the captivating images, the visual and musical metaphors, and the sensual interludes alluding to Nabokov’s Lolita (as directed by Adrian Lyne in 1996), that the fact that much of Stoker does not add up may go unnoticed.
These narrative shortcomings, however, were not lost on me. And they bugged me as well.
Wentworth Miller notes that the Hitchcock film is a point of departure for his own, but on closer inspection one can find deeper roots. For instance, the name of Matthew Goode’s character, Uncle Charles, is the same as Joseph Cotten’s (Uncle Charlie) in Shadow of a Doubt, written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and the director’s wife, Alma Reville.
Thornton Wilder was a particular favorite of Miller’s. As it turns out, the Stoker screenwriter (and Prison Break actor) studied English literature at Princeton University, where the Our Town author received his MA in 1926. Wilder, in fact, plainly remains an influential voice in Miller’s script – which suggests that the connection between literary lineages and alumni associations runs deep.
Focus on the unlikely
As for the influence of Dracula author Bram Stoker, while there is nary a vampire in Stoker, the movie is permeated by a Gothic horror feel. This atmosphere has as much to do with Park’s ongoing exploration of forbidden sexual encounters (see Oldboy) as it does with Miller’s interest in the same topic.
At times, these themes are best explored in cinematic landscapes that aren’t quite real, with creatures that don’t really exist. That’s another allusion to Bram Stoker; and this sense of unreality can be clearly felt in Park Chan-wook and Wentworth Miller’s film. As a matter of fact, Park’s features generally exist in slightly surreal landscapes; though not exactly fantasy tales, they’re particularly amenable to the unlikely.
Thus, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a lot that’s “unlikely” in the filmmaker’s latest effort, set in a strange world filled with beings that may look like ordinary humans, but that are in truth creatures inclined to perform bizarre actions on account of their genetics.
That is the gist of Stoker: We are the result of our genetic propensities, be they literary, cinematic, academic, or of the serial-killing variety.
So, perhaps Stoker is about something, after all.
Director: Park Chan-wook.
Screenplay: Wentworth Miller (who reportedly pitched the screenplay under the pseudonym “Ted Foulke”).
Cast: Nicole Kidman. Mia Wasikowska. Matthew Goode. Dermot Mulroney. Jacki Weaver. Lucas Till. Phyllis Somerville. Alden Ehrenreich. Harmony Korine. David Alford.
“Stoker (2013) movie review” endnotes
Michael Costigan and brothers Tony Scott and Ridley Scott were the credited Stoker producers. Among the performers at some point mentioned in connection with the thriller were Carey Mulligan, Jodie Foster, and Colin Firth.
Stoker movie box office information via boxofficemojo.com.
Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode Stoker movie images: Fox Searchlight.
“Stoker Movie (2013) Review: Vapid Thriller” last updated in January 2022.