Every year, a bunch of unproduced scripts float around Hollywood on something known as the ‘Black List’. Little known films such as Argo and The Social Network started out on the Black List before being picked up, whilst others include Juno, The Road and Safe House. One of the more recent scripts plucked from the List is Stoker, the debut screenplay from Wentworth Miller – yep, that guy from Prison Break – which has attracted Oldboy directer Park-chan Wook to direct his first English language film.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is mourning the loss of her father when her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), of whom she was never before aware, comes to stay with her and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). However, there’s something a little off about Charlie and his presence and motives become increasingly questionable as both India and Evelyn become more and more infatuated with him.
Stoker begins rather slowly and struggles to find any kind of decent pacing. Its opening third perhaps doesn’t establish the tension and curiosity it needs to and it’s difficult to know the kind of direction the film is taking, stuck in a limbo between style and substance. However, after the half hour mark it ramps everything up significantly and it becomes a much more absorbing and enthralling film.
It also makes no bones about its central themes. This is a film about strangers, sexual awakening, loss of innocence, and family relations (Brian de Palma’s Carrie is clearly an influence). It doesn’t always spell these out explicitly but rather beats you around the head with imagery and metaphors to get its point across, which can feel a little over the top at times. It is, however, exquisitely shot with a number of memorable moments – a scene between Charlie and India at the piano is a highlight, although again a (very) thinly veiled metaphor.
Stoker is a pseudo-reimagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and the entire film has a very Hitchcockian feel to it. There are some obvious parallels and similarities – uncle Charlie shares the same name is SoaD’s mysterious uncle – and there are some more subtle – stuffed birds recall Psycho, whilst the shot of India’s reflection in a pair of glasses is reminiscent of a famous shot in Strangers on a Train. Stoker even has its own (very different) shower scene. The film’s general foreboding tone also feels like a modern Hitchcock thriller with a few elements of Asian horror thrown in, refreshing a genre that has spent far too long away from cinemas.
The performances are universally rather awkward but they work for the film. Wasikowska is ideal as the film’s cold detached lead, whilst Kidman is suitably fractious. However, it’s Matthew Goode as Charlie who adds real bite to the film. Warm and friendly one minute and menacingly creepy the next, he provides a genuine sense of unease throughout.
There’s nothing in Stoker that we haven’t seen before and it may prove a somewhat divisive film, but the material is largely handled very well. It sometimes thinks a little too highly of itself and may occasionally step into self-indulgence territory, but as a dark, gothic thriller it’s atmospheric, unnerving and ultimately very effective.