Stoker is a coming-of-age tale of a young girl’s sexuality wrapped up in a horror movie. Actually, it’s really a young girl’s coming of age story wrapped up in a pastiche of Hitchcock films. Directed by Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook, Stoker is his first foray into the English language market and utilizes an international cast (Wasikowska, Goodman, and Weaver are all Australian, Goode is British) to fill out a story set in Nashville, Tennessee. None of the characters act like nor talk like they are from Tennessee, but such is the magic of movies. In addition to accents, the movie is also devoid of pesky neighbors, intelligent law enforcement, or concerned school counselors. This isn’t a realistic movie by a long shot; this is an exercise in insular drama. A collection of bad people who might have been bad from day one, or who might have learned to like it along the way.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) turned 18 the very day that her father (Dermot Mulroney—played in flashbacks) suffered a terrible and bizarre car crash. The help of the manor whispers about the unusual situation in which the father died, and they suspect suicide. India knows better, she was close with her father, and he would never do anything like that. The mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), sleeps late, drinks most of the time, shows signs of mourning, but at the same time, it appears that she could care less that her husband is gone. Matters are further complicated when Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up at the funeral and then comes to stay with India and her mother. There isn’t a question about whether or not Uncle Charlie is a bad man; we know the second that we see him that he is a villain. Maybe India and Evelyn know this too. Why would they let him come to live with them? To crib from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
The secondary characters meet their ends. The caretaker (Phyllis Somerville) is choked and placed in a deep freezer in the basement. Auntie Stoker (Jacki Weaver) comes for a visit and is unceremoniously throttled by Charlie. An over-eager student takes India out on a stroll, and when he can’t get what he wants, he tries to force himself on India, only to meet the belt of Uncle Charlie, a belt he got from India’s father. The first two murders happen, and life goes on, but this third murder is what gives India exactly what she needs. Uncle Charlie snaps the boy’s neck while he is lying on a prostrate India. Later, this memory drives India to masturbate in the shower, climaxing while fantasizing about the boy’s neck-snapping. Here is where the movie turns, and we begin to see where this whole thing is going. The development of India’s sexuality is connected to the violence and bloodletting of the movie: the death of the father, spurning the mother, even stealing the mother’s lover. Freud would have had a field day with this one.
What kind of movie are we watching here? Stoker reveals too much information to make any of the scenes truly suspenseful. Jagged cutting, a roaming camera, and a rapid pace keep us from sitting back and feeling the dread or creepiness of a scene. It isn’t a gory or particularly shocking film. It doesn’t show enough for that to happen. Considering the body count and subject matter, there is a surprisingly small amount of blood. Even though India’s turn revolves around her sexuality, the incestuous relationship between India and Uncle Charlie is treated tamely and never quite gets to the point of revulsion. Is it possible that Chan-Wook was hand-tied by Hollywood? His Korean films explore similar themes in a much more effective and graphic manner. Stoker feels a little more like watered-down Park Chan-Wook.
It may be a watered-down version of Chan-Wook’s Korean films, or it could be a giant Alfred Hitchcock homage. Known during his Hollywood tenure as ‘The Master of Suspense,’ time has proven that we could just go ahead and call him ‘The Master.’ It’s almost impossible to discuss any form of suspense without invoking one of his many tactics, and in this film, Chan-Wook goes ahead and tries to call out as many references as possible. From Shadow of a Doubt (1943), we get the Uncle Charlie character, plus an impassioned speech shot in close-up, where a character turns to the camera to deliver the sting. Stairways are places where information is held and given, as seen in Shadow of a Doubt but also Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946). There is a well-preserved body in the basement, Psycho (1960). The back-story of one young brother killing another comes from Spellbound (1945). Even Uncle Charlie’s demise is shown not with a giant squib explosion but with a bullet hole through a window, the same fate the spy met in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). There were more that I caught while watching that slip my mind at the moment, and I’m sure there were more Chan-Wook intended but went by unnoticed. The first few references are fun, but from then on, it seems like he is trying too hard, like a thesis film made after completing a Hitchcock studies course. Matthew Goode is quite menacing as Uncle Charlie, and he would have done very well in Hitch’s films as well. But he does lack one thing, humor. Hardly a joke is cracked by either Uncle Charlie or anyone else. It would have been a much-welcomed addition.
This movie, like many others in recent years, infuriatingly starts with the ending. Two cars parked on the side of the road, a girl walks across the road, stands before a field, her skirt blowing up-suggesting something of a sexual nature, and a voice-over explains the futility of life and the acceptance of our inherent nature. The movie ends right back where it began, only this time, we know who the girl is, we understand why the flowers are red (they are soaked in blood—another allusion to female sexuality and adolescence), and we know why India is what she is. Where will she go from here? New York is my guess. What will she do? Probably kill a lot of people. Maybe even sleep with them prior to killing them. Why not? It’s a girl’s prerogative.
Directed By: Park Chan-Wook
Written By: Wentworth Miller
Produced By: Michael Costigan, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Phyllis Somerville, Alden Ehrenreich, Jacki Weaver, Durmont Mulroney
Fox Searchlight Pictures, Running Time 99 minutes, Rated R, Released March 1, 2013.
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