Director: Chan-wook Park
MPAA Rating: R
Film Pulse Score: 7/10
Puberty, that awkward time in our lives where our bodies begin to change and do things we don’t yet understand. It can at times prove to be funny, awkward, embarrassing and maybe even a little scary. Puberty, and its many phases, has been the subject of countless films. Ranging from the comedic like Mischief (1983) or Teen Wolf to the dramatic like Thirteen (2003) or Boys Don’t Cry. From the touching Stand By Me to the touchy The Blue Lagoon. Even from the comic book heroics of the X-Men to the terrifying Carrie (1976). Chan-wook Park, in his English-language debut from a screenplay by Wentworth Miller, serves up a mystery with a young blossoming woman at the center.
While preparing for a birthday celebration, the Stoker family is stunned when they learn of the sudden and tragic death of their patriarch, Richard. Young India was very close to her father but is rather distant from her mother, Evelyn. When Richard’s brother Charlie appears out of nowhere, events begin to unfold that begin to arouse India’s interest and curiosity both physically and emotionally.
The mystery serves as the framework for the film but this is clearly India’s story. Unfortunately if you’ve seen the theatrical trailer you may already have an idea of what events will unfold but not necessarily how. I don’t believe Park and Miller were focused on trying to make the mystery complex. If you get ahead of it it’s actually okay because the film is about the affect it has on India. It’s about her internalization, her rationalization, her interpretation and her reactions to these events. Wentworth Miller, of Prison Break fame, and Park wisely take India’s point of view. We see events transpire as India sees them but later we see those same events but differently. Those later reveals inform scenes that came before and actually provide new subtext to not just the plot but India as a character as well.
Nicole Kidman, albeit in brief screen time, is quite good as Evelyn but really doesn’t exercise her chops until later in the film. Matthew Goode is effective as Charlie. He comes off as charming and creepy in equal measure. Now the film would likely suffer if they didn’t cast the role of India properly. Fortunately Mia Wasikowska is excellent as India. As portrayed you really get a sense of what she’s thinking and in some cases if she really understands what’s going on. Wasikowska embodies India with just the right level of detachment and loneliness that makes her empathetic and scary at the same time. Witness one scene involving an ice cream cone and you’ll get the idea.
In comparison to Park’s other films, the Vengeance Trilogy in particular, Stoker isn’t in the same league. Still it is a decent mystery-thriller that evokes Hitchcock. It’s well written, directed and acted. Park allows the mystery to unfold but still maintains focus on India. It was fun seeing just where everything was going but as a whole I didn’t anticipate where it would end up. The reaction by most people I overheard was mixed. I liked where it wound up. In the end it’s an entertaining mystery where you learn puberty is a bitch, you don’t mess with family and sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Well in India’s case it’s more like jump.