Park Chan-wook is a director of immense talent and originality, but not one I find consistent or accurate enough to be a personal favourite. Oldboy, his most recognisable film is a violent massacre of action, but on repeated viewings, I have found its impact to be less effective and the flaws show throughout. Likewise with Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Thirst; two of his more brutal films, in which the pin-point care is easily noticeable, but they are films flooded with flaws and an uneven nature. His short in the small Asian horror anthology Three Extremes (“Cut”), however is a beast of power and originality.
Stoker, Chan-wook’s newest release is unlike anything he’s ever done before. His reputation throughout cinema has been built on vengeance and redemption, two traits of his films apparent throughout the vast majority of his catalogue (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy especially), and despite his technical power in his films, Stoker is the first truly great one. Working on so many more levels than just a Gothic tale of a dysfunctional family, Stoker analyses its characters in a never-ending maze of fantasy and fear.
At the centre of Stoker is our protagonist India Stoker. India is a fascinating figure of a mysterious nature and the performance from Mia Wasikowska as this fragile, shy young woman is one of the finer performances I’ve seen from an actress in recent years. Wasikowska portrays her character in such a way that the demoralization and decay of her soul meets the required believability and alongside her talent is an underlying presence. Wasikowska may not be the tallest woman in the world, but she utilises her traits to full advantage and delivers a performance that is out of the world, and despite this being my first film seen from 2013, I’d be ecstatic to see her sweep the acclaim come awards season.
On the other end of the barrel is Matthew Goode as the sinister Uncle Charlie Stoker. I remember seeing Goode give what I thought at the time to be a career-defining performance in A Single Man, but in Stoker he is mesmeric. There’s a real avalanche of fear that he brings to his character and on more than one occasion, I felt as if I was watching Anthony Perkins in Psycho yet again.
Perhaps the biggest name in Stoker, and the counterweight is Nicole Kidman. Throughout her career she has made a name as a remarkably gifted actress with all the talent to be remembered for years to come along the greats. Whether it’s her work in Eyes Wide Shut, The Others or something more emotionally charged such as Rabbit Hole, she’s always managed to deliver a performance of the highest level and her acclaim is fully deserved. Stoker, I feel, is her most devastating work yet. She may not have the screen time I had anticipated, but there’s something truly magnificent about her performance.
Ignoring the performances, though, Stoker is a masterpiece, and I say that without caution and I know that isn’t because it’s fresh in my memory, I say that because it’s true. With Stoker, Park Chan-wook has created one of the most brutal, fearless and ruthless films I have ever seen. From the opening moments, Stoker is a technical master class with each shot providing a daring look into electrifying souls of its characters and every line is delivered with utmost precision.
I have seen Terrence Malick’s visionary masterpiece The Tree of Life in cinemas, but I cannot honestly say I have seen a more effective and powerful film on the big screen than Stoker. I cannot wait to re-watch it again, and I am immediately anticipating Chan-wook’s next step. Bravo, sir. Bravo.