“To become adult is to become free.”
Eighteen-year old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) intones these words over Stoker’s opening images—a series of beautifully composed shots of her standing on the side of a desolate road gazing out at something we can’t see.
It is here, in this opening monologue, that Stoker positions itself as a film about the chaotic nature of adolescence. Given this film also happens to be from a director whose past films have featured characters mutilating themselves, committing acts of incest (figurative and literal) and engaging in sadomasochistic sexual activities—well, it all makes for a quite unconventional bildungsroman.
As the story opens, we learn that India’s father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), has recently died in a mysterious car crash. While at the funeral, India spots a mysterious man lurking in the distance. This is Charlie (Matthew Goode), Richard’s long-absent brother and India’s uncle. Citing a globe-hopping lifestyle as the reason for never visiting, the dashing Charlie takes up residence at the family home, much to the delight of India’s widowed mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).
Despite obvious advances from Evelyn, Charlie sets his eyes on the emotionally distant India. While India is at first averse to his warmth and attention, she soon finds herself being drawn into his orbit. From there, it doesn’t take long for her to realize that, lurking beneath Charlie’s charismatic façade, resides something quite perverse and evil.
The film marks the English-language debut of acclaimed Korean director Chan-wook Park, best known to international audiences for his “Vengeance trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). The project also serves as the first featured screenwriting credit for Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller. Perhaps it is this pairing of a world-class, established director lost in translation and an amateur screenwriter that makes Stoker a strange, beautiful but frequently infuriating experience.
Park’s feature comes to theaters merely two months after fellow Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim tried his hand at Hollywood filmmaking by directing the action shoot-’em-up, The Last Stand. Kim, who garnered attention after releasing several well-received genre films such as A Bittersweet Life, The Good, The Bad and the Weird and I Saw the Devil, received a less-than-stellar response from American audiences with the critical drubbing and anemic box office of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “comeback” vehicle.
Whereas The Last Stand buried much of the directorial flourishes and style that made Kim’s Korean features so memorable, Stoker has Park written over every frame, with its meticulously composed mise-en-scene, disorientating use of perspective, temporal shifts and explosions of bloody violence. In terms of style, the film exists at the intersection of Alfred Hitchcock and the Brothers Grimm.
Hitchcock in particular comes to mind when one thinks about the film’s similarities to his 1943 thriller A Shadow of a Doubt, which also centered on the relationship between a young girl and her malevolent uncle. (Take into account that both Joseph Cotton in that classic film and Matthew Goode in Stoker are named Charlie, and one suspects the connection may be more than a coincidence.)
Whereas Doubt’s Teresa Wright was portrayed as the epitome of girlish innocence, however, Wasikowska’s plays India as a morose, Wednesday Addams-type figure. Decked out in a drab, quasi-Victorian garb, India looks and feels like a figure out of a completely different time and place. The gothic nature of her wardrobe and her household is so intense, in fact, that when elements of the modern world eventually intrude—whether it be the appearance of a cell phone or a trip to India’s high school—they feel downright jarring and anachronistic.
Wasikowska’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles-meets-Daria-Morgendorffer characterization clashes sharply against Matthew Goode’s smiling, occasionally manic Uncle Charlie. Beginning his career quite unpromisingly as the bland love interest opposite Mandy Moore in the forgettable teen comedy, Chasing Liberty, Goode has wisely steered his career onto a different path. Following notable turns in A Single Man and the Watchmen adaptation, Goode has demonstrated major development as an actor. Now, Stoker acts as his proverbial coming-out party. His traditional good looks have aged into a visage that can switch from charming to sinister in seconds, allowing Goode to deliver a frightening and intense portrait that is effectively flamboyant without ever devolving into camp. In a way, he’s Hitchcock’s Uncle Charlie freed from the restrictions of the pre-MPAA era.
As the troubled Evelyn, Kidman’s performance mostly takes a backseat in the proceedings. While the intense interaction between Wasikowska and Goode is enough to give the film its narrative thrust, one cannot help but wish her relationship with India, or lack thereof, could have been fleshed out with an extra scene or two. On the opposite end, two-time Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver is wasted in the nothing role of India’s great aunt Gwendolyn.
Looking at the film as a whole, one cannot deny that Stoker is a technical marvel. Between the luminous cinematography (courtesy of Park regular Chung-hoon Chung), the costume/production design and the discomforting sound design (at one point, the act of licking ice cream mutates into a ghastly slurp), the film is a master class in mood-building.
Yet, in the end, prowess in mood and technique must ultimately complement and enrich the central narrative. Here, Stoker falters.
No doubt, Stoker aims for classic melodrama in its execution. Characters and situations are so embellished and heightened that questioning their realism is a completely moot point. Yet, even within its own terms, characters’ motivations and actions begin to feel downright juvenile and arbitrary if one stops to think about it for more than a minute. By the end, these behaviors come across less as an organic extension of their arcs and more because the filmmakers wanted to insert something shocking and provocative into later acts. One cannot help but feel that more time was spent crafting glorious visual sequences than punching up the weak spots in the underdeveloped narrative.
For any film fan, Stoker stands as the type of movie one desperately wants to love. Unlike a film like Drive, however, whose thin premise and simplistic script excelled due to the creative brilliance of director Nicolas Winding Refn and the soulful lead performance from Ryan Gosling, Stoker’s story aims for far too much, striving to be a psychological drama, erotic thriller, horror film and domestic drama all rolled up in one. The result is a confused, muddled story with far too many leaps in logic and believability. It all leads to a conclusion that, while viscerally engaging, leaves one emotionally hollow.
As fascinating as it is frustrating, Stoker boasts all the potential for the making of a great film. Instead, it settles for merely being an admirable one. And that is quite a shame, indeed.
Director: Chan-Wook Park
Writer: Wentworth Miller
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver
Release Date: Mar. 1, 2013 (Limited)