Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Park Chan-wook does Hitchcock by way of De Palma in the stylish Stoker

Illustration for article titled Park Chan-wook does Hitchcock by way of De Palma in the stylish iStoker/i
Screenshot: Stoker

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Ben Wheatley’s take on Rebecca in theaters and en route to Netflix, we’re singling out other Hitchcockian thrillers—ones that explicitly recall the master of suspense.

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Stoker (2013)

When filmmakers pay extended homage to Alfred Hitchcock, there are certain recurring titles that tend to get more play than others: Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Rear Window. Park Chan-wook’s Stoker reaches further back to one of Hitchcock’s best but less universally beloved movies: Shadow Of A Doubt, purportedly Hitch’s own favorite from his body of work. In that 1943 thriller, a young woman comes to the horrifying realization that her namesake, her beloved uncle Charlie, is a serial murderer on the lam. Stoker isn’t a formal remake but rather a stylish Brian De Palma-style riff that honors Hitchcock’s twisty sense of craft by twisting and gnarling it further.

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This movie’s Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) doesn’t share a first name with his teenage niece, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), and India isn’t as bubbly as her Shadow equivalent. She’s mourning the recent death of her father, which leaves her stuck with her chilly mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman, an expert at playing maternal strain). Charlie’s unexpected arrival seems to intrigue and upset India in equal measure, as he insinuates himself further into the lives of both mother and daughter with an unnerving calm. Unlike Shadow, the movie isn’t about a young woman excavating the rot underneath her idyllic small-town upbringing. (Not least because the Stokers live in a remote outpost perfect for gothic goings-on.) It’s more about the watchful, isolated India learning to take control of her darkest impulses.

Despite the eventual twists and turns, it’s a simple story, barely enough to fill out the trim, 99-minute running time. But if the script, by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, offers some simple building blocks for contemporary gothic, Park re-arranges them into more complicated structures with his distinctive compositions and off-kilter editing. One deliriously showy sequence juxtaposes the evenings of three different women in the Stoker family with a long chain of graphic match cuts, culminating in multiple revelations and some slashing Psycho-style strings. The sound design strategically pushes background noise into the front of the mix, from the murmuring gossip about the death of India’s father in early scenes to the amped volume of cracking eggshells, scratching pencils, and draining blisters.

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Despite the occasionally oozy imagery, this is one of Park’s least squishy movies, and his first English-language film generally isn’t as well-regarded as his South Korean projects, like Oldboy or The Handmaiden. But it shares with them an almost ludicrous heightening of already-pulpy material, and there’s similar entertainment value in watching Park work this alchemy in an American setting with a Hitchcockian set-up. With the wrong actors, this vaguely out-of-time movie could be an arch exercise, but the lead performances have a mesmerizing stillness. Wasikowska’s goth-girl vibes have rarely been this well-complemented, and Kidman has a mini-monologue about having children, delivered in a single-take close-up, that makes her character both monstrous and pitiable at nearly the exact same moment.

This bit of dialogue also suggests that Stoker may be offering a feminist twist on Shadow Of A Doubt—or at least one that de-prioritizes the machinations of evil men in favor of exploring how women make their way through this menacing world. Ultimately, though, Park makes his best case for the “Hitchcockian” designation with pure showmanship. There’s a lot of grim, unseemly business in front of the camera, and a lot of fun going on just behind it.

Availability: Stoker is available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google, Apple, YouTube, Microsoft, Redbox, DirectTV, or VUDU.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!

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