Mar 21, 2013

Another dysfunctional family but with  functional cinematography.

Grade: B-
Director: Chan-wook Park (Thirst)
Screenplay: Wentworth Miller
Cast: Mia Wasikowska (Albert Nobbs), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge)
Rating: R
Runtime: 98 min
by John DeSando

"I can't wait to watch life tear you apart." Evelyn Stoker to her daughter, India.

Even in South Korean Chan-wook Park’s first English-language film, he knows how to shoot a formalist thriller, each shot an effective emblem of the sinister carnality and carnage awaiting the inhabitants of the Stoker house. Park’s fascination with symbolic, sometimes phallic, compositions (one scene is dominated by a bloody pencil, another the stroked neck of a wine bottle, and another a graveyard whose tombstones are large balls) assure us that a psychosexual drama is in the offing.

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) deserves the surname, as a pubescent teenager with an emerging lust for her Uncle Charlie Stoker, a distinct dislike for her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and a penchant for aloneness that would make any audience cringe at the horrific potential. From pencils to keys, nothing is without meaning, and it is fraught with potentially lethal sexual connotation.

Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) re-enters the family after years of absence to claim his niece, to “tear [her] apart” after the violent and mysterious death of her beloved father. Not satisfied with just his niece, his attentions also fall to mom, who seems a willing object of his obsessions. The thriller part of this modern gothic is that some people are beginning to disappear from the town and others are meeting rueful deaths.

Park’s obsession with actors and their skills at scaling down their thespian exuberance to create multifaceted albeit doomed characters is impressive. Coupling rich details with a crisp but somber palate creates as good an atmosphere for family dysfunction as can be found last  year in Kidman’s Others or  Elizabeth Olsen’s Silent House. Because we all experience familial idiosyncrasies in varying degrees, Stoker will sober us about any heady notions that our families are different. By degrees they are alike, but maybe not as outré as the Stokers.

“He used to say, ‘sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.’” India Stoker.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel. Contact him at