There are all kinds of tension that can occur during a feature film.
There’s dramatic tension (caused by the narrative arc, the actors, or both), tension from suspense or terror (although these are obviously different, they’re easily confused) and sexual tension (which is by far the easiest to spot).
“Stoker”—the first English-language film by South Korean director Chan-wook Park—uses all of these.
After a majestic opening credits (few filmmakers even do these anymore, and that’s a shame), we’re given a pretty basic premise on which to build: A funeral for Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney). Post funeral, his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) moves in with his widow Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and daughter India (Mia Wasikowska), and then it gets a little weird.
Where has he been all of their lives? Can he be trusted? Isn’t it strange that he reappeared immediately after his brother’s funeral? Or, further along that line, why doesn’t Evelyn seem to be grieving for her late husband? In fact, she seems to enjoy Charlie’s company.
Park places these questions front and center, yet he simply lets the script from actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller do all the telling. And for all the tension about which I spoke, Park just turns the camera to the faces of his actors, and they do the rest. This talented threesome is more than up to the task.
“Stoker” also keeps every character an ever-changing mystery. India as the quiet straight-A student that refuses to have anything to do with Charlie evolves the most interestingly, for her coming out of her shell and opening up causes consequences no one could see coming—all the more proved by the remarkable ending of this feature. Mia Wasikowska works wonders in a role that never really gets too comfortable in its current location or definition.
And her mother Evelyn certainly doesn’t help very much, because when she’s not living it up with her husband’s brother, she seems to be faking any real remorse about the fact that her husband’s dead. This character created by Nicole Kidman frustrates the viewer during one scene only to fascinate them in the next. Yet the only oddity of this one is that when the film concludes she’s still undefinable.
But it’s Charlie around whom this motion picture rotates, so it’s his motions that get this ball rolling so to speak. Without any real history off which to go, Evelyn and India are left with what they see by which to judge Charlie. But there’s something stirring beneath the surface at all times, and following a few loose ends that are tied up by the curious India, the man becomes the soul contributor to that kind of terrifying tension of which I spoke in the lead.
Matthew Good leaves the lack of clarity coming from the character of Charlie up to us, for Goode never gives us any solid traits, just more muddy water. Nor does screenwriter Miller pen any hints as to the motives of the man that literally came out of nowhere to live with this family.
The beauty of “Stoker” is these greys; the things that cannot be explained or discussed without viewing the film. Chan-wook Park has made quite a splash with his first feature in English. Let’s hope it’s a sign of things to come.