At the center of this twisted little tale is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a girl whose wardrobe is comprised mostly of grays and blacks and reveals little to no skin. Her idea of quality time with dad? Hunting little animals and later having them stuffed as ‘proud of ya kiddo' trophies. She doesn't like being touched and has a reputation as ‘the quiet one' at school, and this self-imposed isolation draws the ire of bullies who expect - but always fail - to get a rise out of her. Yes, she seems a little strange to those on the outside looking in… and boy, they really have no idea. And neither do we for that matter, not at first. A big question the film begs us to ask early on is if India is genuinely withdrawn, or just behaving like an oddball to make her mother look bad. At first the latter seems likely, because being that Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman) is phony bologna in a prim and proper sort of way, a daughter that behaves in such contrast manages to melt away the façade she's worked so hard to maintain.
What you see isn't always what you get though, and that's the ideology Stoker embraces to the end. India's father dies on her 18th birthday, and right on cue, Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) - who she's never even heard of before - appears and insists on getting to know his estranged family. This obviously causes some inner conflict for her, because she can't understand why her father - her only friend in the world - neglected to mention anything about an uncle. More than that, she's perplexed about the instant connection she has with him… because they're seemingly able to communicate without saying so much as a word. I don't think I would risk moving into spoiler territory by revealing he's bad news, as the trailers tell us as much. Invited into their home, he subsequently begins to seduce both mother and daughter, albeit in very different ways. Evelyn is attracted to his charm and good looks, but it's the darkness within him that India finds so alluring. This wedges mother and daughter even further apart… which was perhaps Charlie's plan all along. From that point on, shocking motivations are revealed through a strange combination of mind games, murder, and oozing sexuality. Without giving too much away, it's the sum of these parts that will increasingly disturb you the longer you think about them.
On paper, the concept seems pretty ‘meh', so how was it able to be so damn effective? Well, it's no secret where Stoker drew a majority of its inspiration from. It takes a handful of Hitchcockian themes - from the likes of Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho and Rope - and tosses them in a blender with equal parts aggression and restraint. I would have been skeptical if I had known all this before screening the film, but now that I've told you, try not to let this knowledge bring a negative bias to your viewing experience. These puzzle pieces almost feel too familiar for comfort, but this film does what it sets out to do after all is said and done, and it does it extremely well. There wasn't a single moment where I wasn't compelled to keep watching, and Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode deserve much of the praise for keeping me on the edge of my seat. I know their performance flew under the radar, but I feel it's deserving enough to be nominated for some awards in 2013. I mean, their characters had serious potential to come off as yawn worthy stereotypes in the wrong hands, but these two managed to keep Stoker thoroughly haunting. My only complaint is Nicole Kidman - Although there's nothing I dislike about her performance directly, she pretty much plays the same character she always has. Is there a single role she gravitates towards that doesn't require her to whip out her ‘serious and possibly scared' face in every scene? She's not the focal point of the film though, so her performance doesn't become much of a distraction.
But although the performances are (mostly) stellar - and honestly, Stoker couldn't have been as effective without them - they weren't my favorite part of the film. No, what I appreciated most of all was that it didn't try to spoon feed us everything it had to offer. Yes, the broad strokes are presented plainly for everyone to see, but I would argue at least half of the story is told through symbolic imagery. There are plenty of tiny details that appear mundane at first, but all inevitably prove to be vital in detailing India's transformation. Take for example an unsettling moment when India takes a hardboiled egg and slowly rolls it on the kitchen table, watching its outer shell crack ever so slowly, piece by piece - This signifies a time when she's about to begin the process of breaking out of her own ‘shell', alluding to the emergence of something disturbing. Practically everything we see serves as a metaphor from this point on, from the orientation of our on-screen characters to the blood soaked pencil tip. Hell, even the name Stoker serves as a significant metaphor.
Stoker was an ambitious project, and I don't think it's going to be everyone's cup of tea. Some are sure to be turned off by the link between violence and sexuality, and I have a feeling that others will think the film was trying too hard to be clever. That being said, I always have more appreciation for films that are made for the right reasons, than those that are watered down to appeal to a wider audience. So, yes, Stoker was ambitious, but I think Director Park Chan-wook did everything right. Think about it - To wander in such dark territory without forcing yawns or laughter along the way is no easy task, but that's exactly what he did. He made sure everything was right, from the writing to cast selection, and the marriage of his ideas ultimately allowed this film to transcend the average thriller. Furthermore, the film will demand repeat viewings of those who enjoyed it - Some will try to catch any of the symbolism they missed the first time around, while others will find a rewarding experience in seeing them all in a new light.
The Fox Searchlight line of films have always impressed, and Stoker's 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (2.40:1) is no exception. This film obviously plays with imagery a lot, so I'm happy to report that there's nothing to botch the intended look of the film - A fine layer of grain and an stunning amount of detail are evidence of no digital scrubbing being done, and there's no digital anomalies such as banding, edge-enhancement or blocking. Sharpness is consistently sharp yet natural, the bleak and muted color palette is preserved maintaining the intended tone, and contrast does wonders in keeping white and black levels in line. In short, this seems to be 100% faithful to the source and fans should find nothing to complain about.
Stoker's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track was a pleasant surprise for me. I understood going in that is likely to be a dialogue driven affair, but there's seemingly no end to the amount of detail that was paid to the sound design. Although most of the film is subdued in an attempt to provide a slow burn of sorts, there are moments that are purposely exaggerated to convey something. Again I refer to India cracking the hardboiled egg shell, or moments when India sort of gets lost in herself and sounds are either magnified or drowned out until we only hear breathing. As far as the rest of the film is concerned, there's always environmental ambience to make us feel like we're really in the film... not to mention, keeping the sound realistic at all times helps to make those exaggerated moments stand out that much more. This isn't a track that's going to show off the capabilities of your home theater or anything, but like the video, is faithful to the source.
-Deleted Scenes - Three scenes make an appearance, and there's not really much I can say about them. I feel the film was finely tuned in most every respect, and anything additional would have only served to hamper the final effort. Really, Stoker works as well as it does because the context is all brilliantly connected. Seeing these scenes, even though they provide a little 'before and after' context, do nothing for me in and of themselves.
-Stoker - A Filmmaker's Journey - There's no commentary on this release, but this half hour documentary does a great job at detailing everything you would want to know, from conception, to set design to working on the set. Not to be missed.
-Photography by Mary Ellen Mark - A hefty collection of on-set pics.
-London Theater Design - Some shots (stills) from Stoker's premiere, in which a London theater was decorated in accordance with the film.
-Theatrical Behind-the-Scenes - Five short blurbs about the film's production, but there's nothing new here except the presentation. Each of the five clips are material taken from the documentary listed above.
-Red Carpet Footage - We often see lots of pictures from the red carpet, but we actually get over 15 minutes of footage from the film's premiere here.
-'Becomes the Color' Performance by Emily Wells
Also included are a Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots, as well as an Ultraviolet code and invitation to download the Emily Wells song 'Becomes the Color' for free.
Stoker is a dark film that presents some incredibly disturbing ideas, which inherently means it won't appeal to everyone. That aside, there's no denying its gamble of embracing Hitchcockian tropes has paid off and then some, as it spun them into a package that's fresh and effective enough for a modern audience. Hollywood has become lazy in providing us with effective thrillers, but Stoker is able to maintain its uncomfortable air with captivating performances and layers of symbolic imagery to digest. Even you don't happen to think the film is all that great, the events that play out will surely linger on your mind and force you to think about them for some times to come. I hadn't exposed myself to Park Chan-wook's filmography before, but this film has certainly piqued my interest. If you're looking for an intriguing picture that both embraces and shatters the Hollywood mold, then this smart picture couldn't come more highly recommended, especially with such a fantastic A/V presentation that accompanies it.