In-Your-Face Sound Design and Music Create the Off-Putting World of ‘Stoker’

By  · Published on February 21st, 2013

At the beginning of Stoker, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) tells us she can hear things more clearly than most people, a talent that is quickly apparent seeing as every noise and sound in India’s life is amplified. From the crunching sound of an egg shell to the sharpening of a pencil, Stoker’s sound design seems to take its cues from the opening credit sequence of Dexter, by turning seemingly innocent sounds into violent ones.

Stoker’s director, Park Chan-Wook, makes his American debut here, but is well-versed in creating creepy worlds where violence and passion live hand-in-hand. This world is brought to eerie life by composer Clint Mansell, who creates a score that works seamlessly with Stoker’s unique sound design, plus a catchy hip-hop influence from Emily Wells and a new piano duet by Philip Glass.

India’s voiceover, which begins the film and explains her unusual talents, is captured in the soundtrack’s first track, “I’m Not Formed by Things That Are of Myself Alone” and bleeds into Wells’ “Becomes The Color,” an upbeat song with a haunting chorus and a deconstructed ending that makes it the perfect introduction to Mansell’s score. His first track, “Happy Birthday (A Death in the Family),” has a light piano refrain that directly mirrors the chorus in “Becomes The Color,” introducing the importance of piano and creating a sense that everything heard (and possibly seen) in this world is simply an extension of something else.

Before her father’s unfortunate and unexpected death, India did not even know she had an uncle (Matthew Goode), and while his sudden presence in India and her mother Evelyn’s (Nicole Kidman) life seems to bring comfort to Evelyn, it instead brings a myriad of unsettling emotions to India which are reflected in the aptly-titled “Uncle Charlie.” It is difficult to get a handle on what is real and what is exaggerated in the Stoker’s daily lives seeing as the film is told through India’s (possibly unreliable) point of view, but it is Mansell’s score that seems to be the connective tissue here and makes the piano not only the place India seems to end up when trying to center herself, but also what we, the audience, hear when trying to do the same.

Horns, percussion, strings, and various sound design elements flesh out the world of the Stoker family, but all of these elements seem to revolve around the piano and the truth it may hold. The Stoker’s are clearly not your average family and the amplified noises employed by the sound design give the film a thriller aspect at first, but one that eventually gives way to the feeling of a mystery longing to be unraveled as the film goes on. One of the few placed songs is “Summer Wine” by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood and marks this shift in tone as does the track that follows, “A Family Affair,” which finds itself more rooted in foreboding strings than recalled piano refrains.

“A Family Affair” also introduces some of the score’s harshest percussion that is then carried over into the bombastic beginning of “Becoming…” This percussive style and its sudden introduction is jarring and, while Mansell soon brings the restorative piano back to the forefront, it is clear the score (along with the story) has begun to give way to some more sinister and abrasive elements. Even the piano’s comfort begins to fade in the Glass’ simple, but harsh, “Duet,” as it is intensely performed by India and Uncle Charlie. It is this beautiful and unsettling duality between the score and the film that make the partnership between Chan-Wook and Mansell feel like one that has been established for years, when in fact they began discussions about Stoker only a year ago.

Chan-Wook reached out to Mansell about Stoker after seeing his live performance at Los Angeles’ Largo Theater last year. (And those living in LA have the opportunity to see Mansell again at the Orpheum Theater on Saturday, April 6th.) Mansell’s distinct sound and ability to take classic orchestration and still make it sound modern and fresh is certainly present here as it mixes with Chan-Wook’s vision and style. Mansell said working with Chan-Wook was “extremely fulfilling” as any note he was given about the score may have been small, but always had a large impact on the music’s overall effect.

It is clear that the director and Mansell worked well together to bring about such a fully realized and distinct vision from the look to the sound of Stoker. The music in Stoker is never a simple undertone or addition to starve off white noise, it is always deliberately used whether to elicit a specific feeling or hint at something lurking in the background as it intertwines with the film’s specific sound design. The story and images of Stoker are ones that will stay with you long after the credits roll, but it is the sound of the film, from both the music to the design, that will have you questioning the true power of this basic sense even longer.

This soundtrack will be available on Tuesday, February 26th through Milan Records.

1. “I’m Not Formed by Things That Are of Myself Alone” – Clint Mansell
2. “Becomes The Color” – Emily Wells
3. “Happy Birthday (A Death in the Family)” – Clint Mansell
4. “Uncle Charlie” – Clint Mansell
5. “A Whistling Tune from a Lonely Man” – Hudson Thames
6. “The Hunter and the Game” – Clint Mansell
7. “Blossoming…” – Clint Mansell
8. “Summer Wine” – Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood
9. “A Family Affair” – Clint Mansell
10. “Becoming…” – Clint Mansell
11. “Duet” – Philip Glass
12. “Crawford Institute (Family Secrets)” – Clint Mansell
13. “Stride La Vampa (from Il Trovatore)” – Giuseppe Verdi
14. “The Hunter Plays the Game” – Clint Mansell
15. “In Full Bloom” – Clint Mansell
16. “The Hunter Becomes the Game” – Clint Mansell
17. “We Are Not Responsible for Whom We Become To Be (Free)” – Clint Mansell
18. “If I Ever Had a Heart” – Emily Wells & Clint Mansell

Stoker hits theaters Friday, March 1st.