Alfred Hitchcock lives. Not literally, of course. Yet, with the legacy that he left behind, we can still sense his spirit flitting from frame to frame in almost any film where his influence is evident. Such is the case for “Stoker,” a creepy and explicit psychological thriller directed by Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook, which stands as an assured homage to the master of suspense while making a few of its own punches.
Pale, teenage introvert and loner India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) experiences a miserable 18th birthday when her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) is tragically killed in a car accident. As she and her estranged mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) grieve for their loss, Richard’s enigmatic, oft-traveling brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives at their home and settles in quite comfortably. Soon, attraction and discomfort test family ties, and the Stoker household becomes shrouded in mystery and tension.
The script, written by “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller, is clearly inspired by the Hitchcock classic “Shadow of a Doubt.” The film certainly shares many characteristics with “Shadow,” but that’s not to say that it’s a carbon copy. While “Shadow” focuses on the plot of a teenage girl suspicious of her uncle, “Stoker” actively works to bring its environment, its world, to life.
Indeed, the film is an immersive picture that prompts the viewer’s senses into action through the fact that India has a special ability to hear and see things that are many others don’t. While India’s “gift” doesn’t serve any other purpose besides fulfilling opportunities to show off Chung-hoon Chung’s ethereal, exquisite cinematography and impeccable sound design, the technical results that it leads to are utterly striking. Such craft adds a ghostly dimension to the unsettling, building suspense, which would make Hitchcock proud.
Intentional absence of a conventional plot and lack of emotional involvement on part of its audience confirms the story’s identity as an art film. Miller and Park emphasize what India sees and thinks, which at times takes precedence over the conflict at hand and subsequently induces a brooding pace. The characters are cold and distant, which complement the film’s apathetic world, if not making it difficult for empathy from the viewer to take effect.
Though it feels that some characters are underutilized (especially within the context of the film’s 99-minute-long runtime), the cast in general makes a good impression. Wasikowska is compelling, effectively communicating her India’s psyche with her body language. With Charlie, a charismatic Goode effortlessly balances eeriness with a beguiling attitude. Kidman establishes an unnerving presence with the emotionally unstable Evelyn. Something else other than sparks fly between these family members, who feel like three sinister Hitchcock villains forced to live together in a single home, spurring a freaky game of creeps.
“Stoker” combines Hitchcockian suspense with acute sensory perception, enticing the audience into its seemingly unfeeling world. It may prove to be a bit too cold for some, but for others, it’s a fascinating, immersive experience.
Only recommended if: You can sit through perhaps one of the coldest art films of the year.