India Stoker’s knee-length skirt is blowing in the wind; the long blades of grass sway back and forth against her shin. Around her waist rests her father’s belt. Above that, she wears her mother’s muddy orange blouse. Her feet fit snugly inside a pair of viridian crocodile heels, a gift from her Uncle Charlie.
And that’s how the audience is first introduced to 18-year-old India (Mia Wasikowska), social recluse and protagonist in South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first English film, “Stoker.” After India’s father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), dies in a car accident, she and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), are joined by an uncle she’s never heard of: the handsome and charming Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode). Charlie’s arrival to the Stoker mansion coincides with a string of disappearances, including India, Evelyn’s longtime housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) and India’s aunt, Gwendolyn Stoker (Jacki Weaver). Meanwhile, India is unraveling the secrets of her family, including the mystery behind her father’s death and her uncle’s sudden appearance.
Park’s psychological thriller, composed in collaboration with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, is saturated in color and imagery. Regardless of whether Wasikowska is modeling outfits or Kidman is flirting with Goode, each shot is aesthetically appealing, often alluding to larger, conceptual ideas. In one scene, Wasikowska is laying on her bed in a fetal position, surrounded by a semicircle of tennis shoes. The subsequent images show a quick slideshow of all the shoes she had collected over the years for her birthday. It begins from the biggest shoe to the smallest, and it moves so quickly that it looks like the aging of Benjamin Button.
Visual components aren’t the only elements that grab the viewer’s attention. Park’s work with Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson’s gripping screenplay pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. A motel and its vacancy sign are featured prominently. There is a shower scene, and for a brief moment, it seems as though someone may get stabbed.
If “Stoker” is a modern retelling of “Psycho,” then Charlie Stoker is the film’s Norman Bates. At first glance, Uncle Charlie seems amicable and cultured. He’s fluent in French and piano, blending in perfectly with the eccentric Evelyn and India, who share those skills. Though Goode is quick to show off his dimples, it seems creepy and as unhinged as Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates. Goode, with his dark mop of hair, even resembles Norman, minus his stammer. His performance adds to the mounting tension of the film.
Rather than employ the cacophony of Hitchcock’s high-pitched strings, Park incorporates the piano composition of Philip Glass and the atmospheric mood music of Clint Mansell, who is known for his work with Darren Aronofsky films such as “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream.” Charlie and India’s piano duet, composed by Glass, is a beautiful chase between hunter and prey. Wasikowska captures the higher and lighter gazelle-like footsteps, while Goode contributes a menacing romp below middle C. The combination is a striking balance, which grows more unsettling the faster and higher it gets.
Unlike Park’s previous work “Oldboy,” most of the violence in “Stoker” is implied offscreen. The audience may see the residue of blood splatter from a gunshot wound or a growing pool of crimson from a murder’s aftermath, but Park is classy with the camera. Unlike recent horror movies, such as those from the “Saw” franchise, his message is neither showing gore nor the most innovative ways to die. His work is reminiscent of an era of films such as “Jaws,” when the images supplemented by imagination become scarier than what’s actually on the silver screen.
“Stoker” is an exercise in images and how those build over the course of the film. Park pours the suspense in a pot and slowly lets it simmer. Just like the soundtrack, the movie boils and creepiness crescendos. The action isn’t fast-paced, but the scenes provide a steady stream of apprehension so that in the end, a girl in crocodile heels, a muddy orange colored shirt and a long, flowing skirt looks menacing.
Director Park Chan-wook’s latest film, ‘Stoker,’ delivers an eerie and visually arresting psychological thriller.