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‘Stoker’

by Kaori Shoji

Meet the Stoker family: wealthy, well-bred and seemingly isolated from the world. Mom Evie (Nicole Kidman) seems to have nothing more to do than weave elegantly around the house with a drink in her hand, looking fabulous. Dad Richard (Dermot Mulroney) is an architect who got his Ph.D at the age of 24. Daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 and has an odd penchant for retro dresses and saddle shoes.

During the first two minutes, we discover that Dad has died: burned to cinders in an untimely car accident on the day of India’s birthday. At the funeral, Mom is already flirting with the dazzlingly handsome Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who apparently just turned up from Europe. “Richard never talked about you,” drawls Mom to Charlie as he smiles evasively. The reasons for that become murderously clear as the story progresses.

Stoker (Innocent Garden)
Rating
Director Park Chan Wook
Run Time 99 minutes
Language English

“Stoker” is a precious and brilliant piece of storytelling, penned by “Prison Break” actor Wentworth Miller, who had been writing screenplays under the pseudonym Ted Foulke — Foulke being his dog’s name — while continuing to work at his Hollywood day job. “Stoker” caught the eye of Ridley Scott and instead of taking the project to a big-name American director, Scott’s production company got in touch with Korea’s Park Chan Wook, of “Oldboy” fame. Speaking almost no English but displaying an extraordinary command over the material and an expertise in making viewers’ skin crawl, Park never misses a step in exposing the festering raw wounds hidden just beneath the gauze-fragile surface of life in the Stoker household.

Park is careful not to sidestep American horror stereotypes. For instance, it’s hard to pinpoint where the Stokers live or what era this is. It’s not an urban setting, nor the familiar American suburbia of well-tended lawns and white picket fences. Their huge stone house has the look of a British manor and there’s not a computer in sight. Mom’s car is a vintage Buick convertible, which she uses to go out for ice cream, packed into round cardboard boxes like it was the 1960s. India sticks out like an antique doll at her high school, among everyone else in makeup and tight jeans. She has a cellphone, but never bothers to use it.

Uncle Charlie strides into all this with the assured gait of a charmer who’s totally aware of his charm, and goes about seducing mother and daughter. Mom needs no prompting. India, still nursing her pain over her father’s demise, will not be won over so quickly. But when the family housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) mysteriously disappears and India catches a glimpse of her body in the basement freezer, she feels inexplicably drawn to her affable but unknowable uncle. It’s as if the hint of menace, which he wears like an expensive cologne, has her in a vice-grip of allure.

“Stoker” is marked by violence and death but never by mayhem. Some of the most visually arresting moments come from India’s flashbacks of time spent with her dad: He had fostered in her a love of hunting and they had spent hours in the woods, carefully orchestrating their next killing of a well-feathered bird. Like India herself, this story has no morals, only an understanding that for some people, murder and brutality are the only acceptable modes of existence.