Wherever he is, Alfred Hitchcock must be giggling to himself. Chan-wook Park’s Stoker takes his Shadow of a Doubt and adds several layers of creepy glee that the master missed out on in his tale of a murderous Uncle Charlie, his widowed sister-in-law and his young niece – and in doing so, Park has created a poisonous treat of a movie.
I’ve greatly enjoyed many of Park’s earlier films, especially his Vengeance trilogy and most of all what I would call his masterpieces, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. They’re not light viewing but they show Park to be an inventive, exuberant stylist with a good feel for striking stories and characters. His Joint Security Area, while less visually arresting (it’s difficult to top Sympathy for Vengeance in this respect), is also well worth watching, and even lesser works such as I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay have a lot going for them.
Stoker is Park’s latest film and his first done in Hollywood. If I’m not mistaken, it’s also the first of his movies written by someone other than the director, and that’s perhaps where the biggest differences come in.
Stylistically, Stoker is perfectly delivered: Park uses his actors and his camera to fantastic effect, multiplying the story’s already considerable creepiness. There is a gothic fairy-tale quality to the images, and the acting is just the right side of the uncanny valley – the protagonists we’re watching aren’t your usual, Hollywood (faux-)naturalistic characters, they’re broken, alien and insectile, with Matthew Goode standing out especially.
It’s exactly these qualities that make it easy to admire Stoker as a stylistic achievement but difficult to care about, though. Park’s earlier films often featured emotional and physical extremes; they weren’t gratuitous in their violence, but they didn’t shrink from disturbing cruelty and Grand Guignol situations. However, at the same time Park’s directorial eye has been more sympathetic in the past: he wants us to sympathise, quite literally, with his broken characters seeking vengeance, salvation and a measure of peace. In comparison, Stoker features two protagonists especially that fall somewhere between, or even straddle, the sociopath-psychopath divide.
This doesn’t make the film less fascinating to watch, but it makes it less engaging for me than most of the earlier movies. There’s a coldness to Stoker that’s effectively chilling but comes across somewhat like a gorgeously filmed documentary about the predatory habits of praying mantises played out from the perspective of one of these murderous insects. And they’re wearing the skins of Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska. And yes, if that image makes you shudder, that’s pretty much what the film does so eminently well.