Stoker was one of the Sundance movies I was only seeing out of obligation. It was a big movie so I’d review it, but I wasn’t excited about it in particular. Now it turned out to be the most impressive movie I’ve seen at the festival so far.
Opening with Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney)’s funeral, his daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) meets her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) for the first time. Charlie’s return provokes the exposure of some family secrets Evie (Nicole Kidman) would rather her daughter not know about, and creates some all-new ones from scratch.
I heard some people describe Stoker as a slow burn, but if you think this is a slow burn then you must not understand much about behavior. So much happens in each scene, and by the time it explodes it’s glorious. Director Park Chan-wook, and it probably started with Wentworth Miller’s screenplay, crafts a fascinating study of how people behave. Mia cracks eggs to drown out funeral gossip, she draws a pattern in art class unphased by a harasser, rainwater drips on India’s shoes and forms a puddle, and did you notice how that naughty drawing paid off in the shower scene?
By the time the behavior turns deadly and sexual, a pencil sharpener becomes one of the film’s most striking images. Style informs the behavior too. Park cuts to the next scene before India is finished talking, quickening the pace of exposition to a brisk clip. He photographs dinner conversation elegantly, and brushing hair becomes a field of grass in a seamless transition. It’s beautiful, and awesome that he even thought of that.
The dialogue is strong too, full of motivation and intention. Charlie asks Evie to stay but then asks India so it can be her decision too. Way to earn her trust, you endearing creep, you. A passive-aggressive “No, thank you” says a lot. Evie’s scene where she lashes out at India is maybe the worst thing you could say to your child, but in the subtlest way possible.
This sort of visual exploration of character and story has been missing from a lot of films and filmmakers need to bring it back. You can make an interesting movie about anything if you let your characters show us who they are and trust them to do so. You can really elevate a genre movie like a mystery/thriller that way.
I did notice the odd flub here and there, but I was willing to go with them. How did India get blood on her face when she was using a sniper rifle from a distance? That’s weird. Maybe it’s an artistic flourish. The movie’s so good people can have blood wherever they want.
Stoker is the best movie I’ve seen so far this Sundance. It’s not quite “blow me away, tell everybody they need to see this” good. I’m still hoping to discover one of those, but as one of the few studio films playing, with a high pedigree of talent involved, Stoker went above and beyond and is an example of strong storytelling to which any mainstream film should aspire.
And check out these other reviews from Sundance 2013:
Who is Dayani Cristal?; starring Gael Garcia Bernal
Two Mothers; starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts
Austenland; starring Keri Russell
Emmanuel and the Truth About Fishes; starring Kaya Scodelario
Don Jon's Addiction; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson
Virtually Heroes; produced by Roger Corman
Breathe In; starring Felicity Jones and Guy Pierce
Inequality for All; featuring Robert Reich
Blue Caprice; starring Isaiah Washington and Tim Blake Nelson
Fill the Void; starring Renana Raz
Running From Crazy; featuring Mariel Hemingway
Wrong Cops; starring Steve Little
Hell Baby; starring Rob Corddry
Escape from Tomorrow; shot without permits at Disney World
Before Midnight; starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
We Are What We Are; starring Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner
Afternoon Delight; starring Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple
Ass Backwards; starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael
I Used to Be Darker; starring Deragh Campbell
Magic Magic; starring Juno Temple
Prince Avalanche; starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch
Sweetwater; starring January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris
Crystal Fairy; starring Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman
S-VHS; sequel to found footage horror film V/H/S
Lovelace; starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Sharon Stone
The East; starring Brit Marling and Alexander Saarsgaard
After Tiller, about abortion doctor George Tiller
Citizen Koch, about The Koch Brothers and campaign finance contributions
Gangs of Wasseypur, a 5 1/2 hour Indian crime epic
In Fear, a horror movie set entirely within a car
The Rambler, starring Dermot Mulroney
What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love, about a school for the blind and deaf
Upstream Color; starring Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.