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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 03.14.13] thriller

Is one born evil or is it actions that turn us evil? The question of where evil comes from isn't new. From religious and academic texts to entertainment, it's a question that's been explored at great length. Stoker, Chan-wook Park's English language debut, isn't even the director's first brush with the subject which was also a central theme of his 2009 vampire thriller Thirst but Stoker is a far different beast because tied into the concept of searching for the nature of evil, we have the story of a young woman coming of age.

Written by Wentworth Miller (best known for his turn in front of the camera in the successful TV drama "Prison Break"), Stoker centers on India, a wisp of a girl, fiercely loyal to her father, cold to her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and wholly independent. The action begins on her 18th birthday, a time of celebration marred by the sudden death of her father in a car accident. The day of the funeral brings with it the arrival of Charlie, the uncle India never knew she had, and from the moment she spots him across the lawn, something in her changes.

It's some time before we know what exactly is going on behind the creepy smiles and sexually charged silences but one thing is certain: Charlie has come for India and against her better judgement, the young woman feels drawn to him. In all seriousness, what woman wouldn't be? The casting of Matthew Goode is a stroke of genius. It's not his first turn as a villain (it's worth tracking down Scott Frank's The Lookout) but he's so charming here, dressed in brown and beige, warm smile always at the ready... and Evelyn is so needy and false... you want Charlie and India to run away together yet nearly every time he appears the music shifts, almost as if someone is whispering a warning: "don't fall for him."

The only member of the Korean crew Park brought with him to Hollywood was long time cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. The two have a short hand which has worked well over the years and though some may have issues with Park's movies, the way they look has never been a complaint. Stoker is gorgeous, capturing the luscious beauty of the countryside but also the confines of a large house which never feels claustrophobic until, in the end, it does. Much of the movie is captured in close-ups of India's face, particularly her eyes, which have an unnatural colour that I wouldn't be surprised to discover was either created with contact lenses, in post or a combination of the two. Kidman, who has of late been criticized for the unnatural tightness of her features, perfectly fits the role of Evelyn, a woman who is cold, vulnerable and selfish and yet manages to, in the final moments, display some deep rooted motherly love for India.

In part Stoker is very much a coming of age tale, one that incorporates both the turn from girl to woman, something which is somewhat ridiculously visualized through shoes, but also India's growth into the family legacy which ushers in the exploration of the nature of evil but it's also a genre picture the likes of which we've come to expect from Park. It may look like a tight laced tale of upper crust family dysfunction but when it takes a turn for the dark, Park doesn't hold back.

The shoes aren't the only misfire, there's a flashback sequence that spells out the mystery of Charlie and which feels out of place in a movie that is otherwise full of nuance and numerous questions that are left unanswered (I'm certain there's some meaning to the use of the name Stoker) but Stoker comes out mostly unscathed, a dark tale of sex, longing and growing up. With a twist.

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