Occasionally nonnarrative — or at least subnarrative — Stoker is a film that a hater might call outrageously overproduced.
I'm no hater. Director Chan-wook Park's (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Thirst) film is fabulously lurid; blood flows in its veins, pounds in its temples, sometimes spurts and pulses on the wall. It's a coming-of-age horror psychosexual drama, gory and disturbing. It's the best movie of the year to date, and to hell with what month it is.
There's a thin nimbus of mystery that cloaks the film, a fragile bubble that may burst if you know too much. I don't know how much is too much; I just know I didn't know anything and that suited me fine. The movie plays coy with the details for quite a while. So just go see it.
The details, however, are thus:
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, in an arresting performance) is a high-school girl whose father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), has just died in a car accident. The mom and new widow, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), seems strangely dispassionate as we first meet her. Perhaps that's because of the just arriving presence of Richard's charming younger brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode, who is just that and then some).
India is bent out of shape, because she didn't know she had an uncle, she doesn't like her mom, she misses her dad, who died on her birthday, and, basically, she's a moody teen.
India mourns in part by becoming infatuated with her mysterious uncle. Why was she never told of his existence, for starters, why does he seem to have India's number and Evelyn's eye, and, most of all, why is this so instinctually infuriating to her?
India sulks, Charlie smirks.
The audience knows something is not right at all in this unholy family, but the film plays its secrets close to vest. The titular surname is a nod to literary vampires, so it can be forgiven if, when the film runs to horror, those popular mythical creatures spring to mind. Is Stoker a vampire film? It's certainly as prepossessed enough with death and sex to a degree to delight the Anne Rices of the world.
Because Stoker doesn't want to tell you what is going on (it eventually does), the audience is forced to piece together the proceedings based on how the movie is being told. Park and the technical filmmakers give Stoker a heightened sense of awareness. The camera and microphones pick up the tiniest events happening in the Stoker household, from a bug's life to indecipherable whisperings and adult glances at Richard's wake. The Foley artists got paid overtime.
India provides an interior monologue with lines that sometimes veer into the romantic poetry of a teen in the full thrall of navel-gazery. ("To become adult is to become free," she says.) In Stoker, it utterly works. She might've learned it from her dad, with whom she frequently hunted, who advises her in flashback, "Sometimes you have to do something bad to keep you from doing something worse."
The camera makes movements and chooses angles beyond what sometime seem called for. Color saturates. Stoker wields a sensory overload, a sound and fury signifying its subject matter, India becoming a woman.
The result is a film that's mostly about emotion and character. It's unsettling before you know why. By the time the story comes into focus, Stoker has its teeth into you.
Contrast Stoker (an original script by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson) to Beasts of the Southern Wild, another Bildungsroman where a young girl's awakening to her place in the world is couched in her relationship to her inner nature. But where Hushpuppy charmingly tamed her beasts, India slays them.
Opens Friday, March 22nd