Nearly 45 minutes into Stoker--a buttoned-down mystery about the unkempt morals of a mysterious Tennessee clan--it hits you like a shovel to the head: Of course, it's Hitchcock!
The master of suspense would have coveted this film's disturbingly good intensity: tightly fitted with slow and steady clues, an extremely attractive case and a trunk full of sexual tension. Hitchcock has been dead 30-plus years, but screenwriter Wentworth Miller has clearly been influenced by Psycho and Shadow of a Doubt in this stylish exercise in idiosyncrasy.
"We are not responsible for what we have come to be," narrates the barely legal India (Mia Wasikowska) in Stoker's opening frames. "And to be an adult is to be free."
But freedom is far from India Stoker's 18-year-old reach; she is a prisoner of her days. Following an unhealthy adolescent attachment to her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney), India's identity is forever lost when he dies in a fiery auto wreck. Meanwhile sloe-eyed mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), too perfect in her clothes and makeup, sleepwalks through her grief.
"Richard lived a life that honored integrity, openness and honesty," says a minister at the patriarch's funeral. But honesty and the family's darkest secrets have been locked away in tiny boxes in Richard's study, left untouched since his untimely death. Trust me, you won't like what you see.
Meanwhile, India and Evelyn are taken aback by an unexpected house guest: Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode), Richard's rarely spoken of younger brother. Charlie's easy manner and tanned good looks bring a glow to India and Evelyn's pale existence. In fact, India's wardrobe of black soon evolves into virgin white. And India's virginity--in a perfect Hitchcockian psychosexual theme--is indeed at risk as she wades into the treacherous waters of sensuality for the first time. One particular scene, in a shower no less, is certain to be controversial and will leave you uneasy for days. When Charlie slides a goblet across a table to India for her first taste of wine, telling her the vintage was fine because it was the same year she was born, the film oozes with a perfectly malignant sophistication.
Miller's screenplay of Stoker was included on the film industry's infamous Black List of the best unproduced screenplays. Behind the lens was South Korea's Park Chan-wook for his first English-language effort. Chan-wook, despite the violence in his previous Vengeance Trilogy, has been heralded as one of the Far East's most popular directors and has twice won top awards at the Cannes Film Festival.
But Stoker is less violent and more just a good, disturbing thriller. It's Kidman's best work in years and a real star-turn for Wasikowska. Original music from Philip Glass and cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung are also expert. Ultimately, the film is a grisly pleasure, but bring a sweater: You'll feel a chill that you just can't shake.