Directed by Chan-wook Park
Written by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson
South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first cinematic foray with the English language is a gratifyingly morbid journey, albeit frustratingly simple in its conclusion. The man behind “The Vengeance Trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) doesn’t deliver the level of graphic gore or sadism one might anticipate from him. Chan-wook instead successfully presents us with a meticulously detailed and scintillatingly gothic atmosphere rife with bloodthirsty possibilities. Cinephiles looking for the daringness of the master’s earlier works will likely be disappointed that this provocative project about a morose young woman disturbingly coming of age ends up leaving much to the imagination.
Right before turning 18, intense India (Mia Wasikowska of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) loses her beloved father to a mysterious accident. Enter Uncle Charlie, her father’s long lost brother. Her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) gives him an eerily enthusiastic welcome in the midst of bereavement and pays little to no attention to her grieving child. Charlie’s mannered and assertive presence beguiles Evie and intrigues India. Although absent for the entirety of India’s life, he immediately charms his way into living in the family house. Actor Matthew Goode (Watchmen, Brideshead Revisited) is darkly enigmatic as Uncle Charlie- drawing the audience, India and Evie in with his sphinx like stare. The unpredictable Goode holds his own next to Kidman, whose multi-faceted performance is best when her character feels slighted. This film isn’t concerned with us liking or sympathizing with any of the leads but directs us to deciphering what their individual motivations are for behaving badly.
India’s curiosity in strange Uncle Charlie escalates as it becomes clear that she’s otherwise surrounded by ignorant thugs at school and neglectful superiors at home. There is something about Charlie’s knowing looks that are appreciative of how alone she is in the world. Cross-armed and tight-lipped, Wasikowska’s sullen teenager is a fitting descendent of Winona Ryder’s portrayals of young women on the edge in the late ‘80s. Lydia from Beetlejuice, Veronica of Heathers and Stoker’s India share a repulsion to society’s shallowness and an unhealthy attraction to death. India takes her abnormal fixations a great deal farther than the other two characters and whether she thinks subsequent events are the stuff of nightmares or a dream come true is a tough call.
The delicate chemistry between Charlie and India is largely left unspoken. The taboo tension between them lingers in glances from across the room and a mutual distaste for the desperateness of India’s mother. With nearly every frame full of alarming insinuations, Chan-wook leads the audience to make disturbing associations between sexual satisfaction and solving problems with violence. The cryptic mysteries of the film are made aesthetically and thematically rich by these deliberately sly and macabre visual cues. Swinging basement lights, spiders crawling up legs and a pencil being sharpened to a dangerous point are amongst a number of ghoulish elements that add to the sinister disposition of the film. India’s gloomy attitude matches perfectly to the often grey, black and blue palette of Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography. The inventive transitions are transfixing and have you thinking that everyone has something to hide or protect. This thriller doesn’t use dense dialogue to spell out feelings but relies almost completely on what is and is not shown to us. Chan-wook’s masterful and immersive style is more than anything why one needs to see Stoker.
The abbreviated, all too concise ending is inadequate and does a disservice to the momentum of India’s actions. This trifling finale leaves the audience wanting to return to the genuine anxiety and shock generated from a hideous flashback to Charlie’s childhood. Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson’s screenplay would have been strengthened if they had expanded upon India’s true sense of self when apart from others. Stoker is not an overwhelmingly astonishing movie but some of Chan-wook’s ingenuity and his grimly absorbing propensity for showcasing the ghastly things humans can do to one another thankfully get through.
– Lane Scarberry