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Review: "Stoker" Disturbs. But To What End?

A slightly abridged version of this review was previously published in my weekly column @ Towleroad

Thirst > Stoker

A few years ago Park Chan-wook, the acclaimed genre fabulist from South Korea, made an award winning vampire film called Thirst. With the exception of the Swedish instant classic Let The Right One In, it's the best vampire film of the past 20 years. Second best might not seem like high praise but consider the volume of competition!  

In Thirst, a priest and reluctant vampire, infects a young girl with his addiction and she flips from moody troubled teen to lusty adult trouble-maker. Is she his impressionable victim or his soulmate apprentice? Or is she much harder to pin down? Having raved about Thirst when it was released (including a Best Actress nomination for Kim Ok-bin right here) and being a shameless Kidmaniac I walked into Stoker with high expectations. Despite the title's nod to Bram Stoker, I was not expecting an English language pseudo-remake of his earlier vampire feature. There are no literal vampires this time but the central power play relationship and overall bloodlust are like eerily similar echoes. Even the supernatural powers remain: India (Mia Wasikowska) even begins the film boasting of her preternatural hearing in voiceover while she hunts a defenseless animal in the tall grass. It's like a Terrence Malick sequence with brutality in place of spirituality. India's hearing is so acute she even catches spidery footsteps (So do we since Stoker shares with Thirst masterfully creepy and super detailed sound design.)  

A Stoker family dinner. Bloody steak.

"Don't disturb the family" is a stupid fun tagline for Stoker's ad campaign and poster since the warning is pointless. This family was disturbed long before you bought a ticket. [more...]

India Stoker lives with her distant mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) in a large creepy house complete with a shadowy black cellar with flickering lights and an enormous old fashioned freezer. Outside of mutual contempt for each other, their only shared hobby appears to be obsessing over the same men. Mother and daughter are both mourning the family patriarch Richard (Dermot Mulroney) who burned to death in his car and they're both enthralled by "Uncle Charlie" (Matthew Goode), his younger brother, who comes for the funeral and stays awhile. If his name doesn't tip you off (Uncle Charlie is a nod to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt) the direction will. Charlie is not right. Charlie is not good. Charlie's eyes never leave the Stoker women. He's like a stalker who's been handed keys and a guest room instead of the customary restraining order.  

Charlie is played by perfect specimen Matthew Goode, which immediately tips the odds against propriety. (The odd psychosexual screenplay is by another beautiful man, the actor Wentworth Miller from Prison Break). Park Chan-wook and Goode point to Charlie's sinister nature right from the start but the movie is curiously withholding about the hows and whys of this family's strange arms-length-or-further-please distance from one another. One early scene involving Jacki Weaver as another distant relative, is hilariously tense as the camera continually darts and circles around the family at a dining room table where no one appears to be eating, supping only on their distaste for each other. Stoker even plays coy with the "whens" of the shit going down for far longer than you'd expect or might have patience for.

Which is not to say that it doesn't have its thrills. Goode rules the film with those increasingly spooky unblinking eyes, but the entire cast is compelling. While Nicole Kidman fails to make a full character from the vaguely written Evelyn -- the movie forgets about her for long stretches -- she's such a compelling screen presence that it feels like a gift when the movie hands her a late film monologue just to see her tear into something before the credits roll.

a little mother daughter time... at arm's length

But for such a bloody film (yes, multiple bodies will pile up) it's curiously bloodless, only coming alive in brief kicks… all of them a contradictory mixture of the movie's absurd physical beauty (Production Design Porn alert!) and morally repugnant storytelling (is it just me or is Hollywood obsessed with stories in which we the audience are meant to identify with killers instead of fearing them and rooting for their victims to escape?). I won't give away the goods or even the sick character arcs though I've noticed that the trailer reveals almost all the surprises (pity that) but I will say that I hated the ending. It's not so much a twist as a delayed inevitability given the echoes of Thirst but I was hoping for something more ambiguous and less distasteful. In fact, I might have praised Stoker for its sophisticated horror thrills (one murder involving a telephone call is going to give me nightmares from its simplicity) had it ended just one scene earlier on an absolutely killer shot of a long blood-stained trail, a sense memory of dragging a body through a home to show it the door. The moment works beautifully as satire (never outstay your welcome), creepy horror (another dead body?) and satisfying conclusion.

But the actual ending ruined it for me. I left Stoker feeling only queasy, which I suppose is a testament to its strength as a horror film. But to what end? I prefer bloody movies with cathartic undercurrents (Carrie), sneaky subversiveness (Let the Right One In), gut-wrenching morality (Thirst), or the sheer buoyancy of great thrills (Silence of the Lambs) none of which Stoker left me with despite its meticulous beauty and fine acting. Later that night, I came home and thought about the boxes of mystery swag from Stoker's PR team that keep arriving. At first I thought they were cute and more power to them since this is a tricky sell, too artsy for the slasher crowd, too gorey for the art crowd, but now they're just creeping me out.  I am suddenly thankful that Park chan-wook is out there making pictures rather than killing people. I'm not suggesting that this globally renowned director is a latent serial killer but IF HE IS his films are veritably perfect kill trophies, fetishized imagined mementos from the lives he could have snuffed out instead of picking up a movie camera.

He's done some bad things, sweetie. Run!

Grade: A- for craft but D- for morally repugnant emptiness which leaves us with what exactly... C+?
Best-In-Show: Totally Matthew Goode who nails the patient dead-eyed beauty of a killer until the mayhem starts after which he totally comes alive... so creepy! Honorable mention: Jacki Weaver is very welcome in her small supporting role of Aunt Ginny... that Animal Kingdom performance was no joke and thank God Hollywood noticed, right? 
Oscar?: You could certainly make a case for it in the craft categories but it's an early release and far too invested in the horror genre to thrill the Academy. 

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Reader Comments (22)

Nat: I'd personally say The Addiction is probably not only the best vampire film of the last 20 years (1993-now), but (maybe) the best ever.

March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I have to agree with you; the "shall we do it again?" line was particularly distasteful.

It's not that I object to that sort of subject matter being in the film, but it really highlights the mixed messages floating around concerning India's relationship with her father, and that last act is *so* rashly developed and eager to 'affect'. Also: when you boil it down there isn't a ton of stuff in the first hour that hasn't been done in other films, although I agree that the Jacki Weaver scenes are tremendous.

March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCal

I can't disagree with you Nat. The film was meticulously beautiful, but disturbing in not always satisfying conclusions.

My take on the "final" ending was a liberal commentary on our gun culture, specifically Sandy Hook. I know it's a stretch, but ... a kid, raised with hunting skills (not a bad thing), but sensitive to the outer world, is protected until released where authority and order are held in contempt and anarchy reigns. Maybe it was me trying to make sense out of it, but I figured it was included for a reason. Still, I'm not sure it worked for me.

On a side note, I've been dreading the Carrie remake. But, watching this film, one sign in the positive direction would have been nabbing Mia Wasikowska, instead of the girl they cast. So it goes.

March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVince Smetana

"He's done some bad things, sweetie. Run!"

I laughed out loud. Thank you, Nathaniel.

March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

@Vince, I agree Mia would've been a great choice for Carrie. This was already finished before Sandy Hook and scheduled for a release date.

March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Thank you Nathaniel for being able to capture a film exactly how you experienced it. This is a movie where I am already repulsed by it, and that is simply from the trailer and watching Nicole Kidman promote it! Her interview for the LA Times at Sundance was bizarre. She managed to mention, "I just did Grace Kelly" in the first minute, but did not acknowledge her two co-stars for "Stoker," who were sitting right next to her, during a LONG interview! Not once. It was like watching a Japanese horror film where two humans are sitting next to a talking ghost. I also noticed that the NYT and EW reviewed "Stoker" without even mentioning Nicole's role as part of the film, so maybe she is a ghost in seven theaters. A lady must be nice. I am learning about film to be an actress, and I appreciate your site.

March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeyonce

Another great vampire flick is the German film, We are The Night starring Nina Hoss. Recommended. Love your blog btw.

March 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarlon

Stoker is the kind of film Park does. Thirst is the exception. He's not aiming for you to cheer on the bad guys. He wants you to see how horrible everyone can be in the wrong set of circumstances. That's very different from a modern body count horror where only the villain has a presence onscreen with all the interchangeable, blandly pretty leads being devoid of personality. With very few exceptions, you're almost never meant to be Team Bad Guy in any film that gets a real theatrical release.

March 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

"Beyonce", what are you trying to do here? You seem desperate to bash Nicole Kidman. Why is that? There was absolutely nothing weird about the LA Times interview you mention. In fact, Kidman did acknowledge her co-stars several times. And both Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska only have praise for her.

Mia said about Kidman: "She's such an incredible acting legend. She really took me under her wing and was really sweet and open. She was really giving of her experiences of growing up in movies. Especially for me, being a young actor coming from Australia, she's the ultimate role model."

And Matthew Goode said: “We were filming in Nashville, which is her home, so I think we were quite lucky to see her in such a relaxed state. She showed us around and on Halloween, our kids went to a pumpkin patch and went to the farms together. She’s such a big star, you know, and has been for such a long time. You go with preconceptions like, ‘I wonder if she’s going to be starry?’ And actually she’s nothing like that. She’s completely lovely. I just haven’t got a bad word to say about her. She’s also bloody good at her job, and incredibly beautiful."

And no, the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly didn't mention Kidman's role in their reviews. So what? She was mentionned in The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and many other reviews. What's your point?

And if you really want to be an actress, you should watch Kidman's great performances in To Die For, Moulin Rouge, The Others, The Hours, Birth, Margot at the Wedding, Rabbit Hole or The Paperboy...

March 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLouis

Terrific review, Nathan. Thank you for articulating so well some of the aspects of the film that didn't work. Though quite beautiful to look at, I found it to be a pretty empty exercise. As a thriller, it really didn't work because it pulled its punches way too early. I pretty much figured out two-thirds of the way through how it was going to end up. But the very last development did surprise me. Nicole was the best part. I always find it remarkable how she can bring the smallest subtext to even the slightest scenes. I had never seen Mia before, and while she was quite good, I couldn't get the image of Darlene from Rosanne out of my head. So that kinda tanked it for me. LOL

March 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Oh, forgot one thing. I had to laugh at the mention of the director being a latent serial killer. I recently read an interview with Friedkin, who said he might have been one if he hadn't become a filmmaker. That guy constantly surprises me in the most bizarre and disturbing ways. LOL

Guess that goes along with the line from the movie: Do something bad so you don't do something worse. Ha.

March 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I'm both a big Park Chan-wook and Nicole Kidman fan, so maybe I have unreasonable expectations for this movie. I agree that his films are beautiful to look at, and I find the dissonance really interesting/disturbing when repulsive or violent things start happening onscreen. Though some say his work glamorizes gore, I interpret the thesis of the Vengeance trilogy to be that revenge takes its toll on the culprit as well as the victim, that violence is ultimately futile.

Love what Park says Nicole told him at their first meeting: "My goal is to satisfy the director. That’s all." So typically her :)


March 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteryoonah

"Jacki Weaver is very welcome in her small supporting role of Aunt Ginny... that Animal Kingdom performance was no joke and thank God Hollywood noticed, right? "

I've been aware of Jacki Weaver since Picnic at Hanging Rock and Caddie in the late 1970s. She is a wonderful actress of four decades standing and it is wonderful finally seeing her get way overdue honor in the U.S.

March 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Jamie -- she is really fun in Picnic at Hanging Rock. but that's the only thing i'd seen from her before Animal Kingdom. I did ask her about Picnic when I interviewed her

March 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Can't stop thinking about the movie...brilliant. The director was pointing out where our pursuit of the ecstatic, oneness with nature, silence (ie spirituality) can lead if it dos not have a basis in love and faith in goodness and compassion...(morality)

In the movie the girl learned silence, stillness and oneness with nature in conjunction with killing (violence)...those were her happiest memories....her father was wrong in saying that you do something bad to avoid doing something worse...it is how hollywood film makers are justifying all the violence they portray in the movies as being acceptable because it supposedly prevents worse violence in reality. BUNK! It actually re-enforces violence in reality. As it did with an impressionable child who felt loved only when holding a rifle and killing a living thing. The sexual, oedipal thing also occurred in that context. The father and daughter did nothing but kill together. It was almost a sacred act...a prayer...a meditation...

The director is saying that our society has made violence and sex a sacred act...urging viewers to worship it...and has even connected the ecstatic experience with it...ecstasy can even sell cars...we have debased everything truly meaningful and human in this society.

Greed has perverted everything! God is dead and blind.....but it is really our fault!

The same applies to art and creativity which is being used by groups in this society to sell and buy into it's ugliness. Beauty for sale...not to help transcend....because even that experience is now for sale...

There was no love in that girl's home...the Mother was a non-entity who demanded love for herself without any generosity of spirit or loving anyone back. The girl had a good relationship with the house keeper who loved her and those were the only moments she actually smiled and looked human. But that was not enough to overcome her sick up-bringing and terrible dependence on her father who was so afraid she would end up like his brother he actually caused it to happen. There were no hugs, laughter, playing ball or anything else in her life except discipline (she was an A student) and killing...she learned that life didn't matter, hers or anyone else's...

In this society parents are creating bullies because they are so stressed by their own life, sense of powerlessness that they can no longer cope and the children pick up on the fact that to survive they have to elbow their way through life...that life is not good or benevolent. Ads on tv have to urge people to play again because we have forgotten how...

The uncle in the movie was a psychopath...but everyone around him was effected...he should have stayed locked up....
But his childhood contributed to it...the older brother taking all attention away from him and only paying it to the youngest brother...probably the parents did the same. Again the director is pointing out what insufficient love can cause....and we as a society no longer know how to love....drugs and perverted versions of religion are trying to take the place of love...and the result is pure (albeit beautiful and luxurious) evilness.

The name India was significant too....India as a country symbolizes spirituality and ecstasy without love....which also creates violence in the end...towards women, etc...

March 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEva Lewarne

I just saw it and was really hypnotized by the beauty of it all...but I don't know why so many reviews mentioned how they didn't know what time it was set in when it was quite obvious at various points with dates.

March 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I think India's father knew she had a darkness in her. I am surprised nobody picked up on that. When he is teaching her to hunt he said to her sometimes you have to do something bad to avoid doing something worse. It's better for her to kill animals (game birds) than humans, like her uncle did... It's almost like Dexter's father. He knows his son is a serial killer so if he's going to kill...than kill only people who deserve it. She needs to kill....so lets hunt.
I knew she was a serial killer almost immediatly. I like how he tried to make it seem like she might not be during the rape scene. Then he closes in on how she was holding Whips hands to her chest as her uncle pulled on his neck with the belt, so they mutually murdered him.
The creepiest thing was the incest. It's her uncle, it's his niece! That's just disgusting.
Overall though, I really thought it was a very well done movie & it was beautifully filmed. I recommend seeing it.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris

This movie is horrible. Either I lack skills of liking vampire movies, or it just su*cks like I think it does. Where's the story? Where's the plot? All is so random. What happens in the woods? Why does the uncle like this niece so much? Why does the widow instantly fall in love with the uncle?
Please don't start on; "gun control" "in this society" or any reference to religion.

I'd rather have watched the cooking channel.
-That feels better.

August 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

I like the ending only for the end-credits song. And the photography.

Sometimes you must just forgo everything else and give in to the aesthetics.

And hello? Backwards credits? Nice.

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMs. V

not a literal film. an exercise in irony when sociopathic tendencies run in the family.

daddy is india's mentor but has already helped create baby brotber who takes his life....and wife.

even the end was a failure by law to surmise the murder hidden by the fire so it is a warning that things are different than what they obviously appear.

March 1, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterj. roemer

Just too sick all around! Too many questions unanswered- why did the father keep his brother's letters - wouldn't it have been better to turn these over to the mental health authorities. Was her father channeling his daughter's sociopathic tendencies into the more acceptable violence of hunting? What was the symbolism of India surrounding herself with old shoes and why would the father have allowed her to even get them knowing they were from sicko bro particularly when he went to such lengths to keep Charlie away from his family (car and money to live in NY) So much missing - and to call this an expression of art, as many are doing- God- keep me artless. I know it wasn't a feel good movie which I can accept, but to hear that it was a story beautifully told - just leaves me thinking WTF - I've been insulted for sure.

January 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterApril

"Charlie is not right. Charlie is not good. Charlie's eyes never leave the Stoker women. He's like a stalker who's been handed keys and a guest room instead of the customary restraining order."

... made me laugh out loud. YES. We need to talk about Charlie. And I need to talk about this movie, 4 years post-release. Don't mind me.

So, the piano duet scene alone has gracefully seared itself into my brain as one of the most enigmatic and weirdly sensual moments in cinematic history. Yes. YES. It's that glorious. It is beautiful/dangerous/haunting. And most of all: It is HOT. Never have I felt more uncomfortable yet hiiiiiighly drawn in to neice-uncle relations (ew, ew EWWWW) - not since the recent GOT Dany/Jon hookup. The Philip Glass (and normally I'm not a Glass-head) is perfect, the entire moment is spellbinding. The song is commenting on/playing with Faustian themes, with the ominous base being brought in by Charlie, in answer to the plaintive lead India has been playing bits of, throughout the film. (Of course, the entire film plays with Faustian themes, but this moment is pre-climax climax. There's probably some technical term for this that I'm missing.) It also reminded me of the Big Bag Wolf, the predator and prey - except of course, India turns out to be a predator. Ohhhhh, did I liiiiiike that scene.

But yes, the ending got to me too, and not in a good way. I loved that India saved her mother, that she DIDN'T wind up choosing Charlie, even though she was more-than drawn to him. I was hoping that act of protection to her Mother was going to show that she had both the killer instinct, along with some humanity - that she could become like a female Dexter ro grown up Wednesday Adams - all odd, scary surface, but no evil bit - and perhaps be a protector against the Charlie's of the world. But nope, then she went stabby and then true hunter psycho on the cop and....hmm. Yes, I left a bit disappointed with it.

Do I still love it ? This is Chan Wook Park, with an excellent cast. Matthew Goode and his glittering eyes won't be leaving my mind for a lil' bit.

September 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

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