Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson (contributing writer)
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman
Best known for the brilliant cult revenge thriller Oldboy, Korean director Chan-wook Park’s debut English-language film is stylish, seductive and frequently ludicrous, an unscrupulous Hitchcockian romp around an isolated country estate. Wentworth Miller’s first script is unabashedly derivative, lifting plot points, imagery and virtually whole characters from a number of sources, notably Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but Park’s sharp direction ensures that Stoker is wildly entertaining in spite of its flaws.
Having lost her doting father in a horrific car accident on her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is forced to live alone with her unstable mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), before her mysterious, charismatic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears at the funeral and moves in to help them through their difficult time. Caught up in his overt refinement and clean good looks, Evelyn is oblivious to his true motives but India, who has vague extra-sensory powers and a odd, near-psychic connection with her uncle, is onto him straight away. He cooks them extravagant meals without taking a bite, hinting at the vampirism of the title, and tries to implant himself in every aspect of their lives. But it is only when their long-standing housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) and India’s suspicious aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) disappear in quick succession that his violent nature is made explicit and we understand that he will go to any lengths to obtain what he desires.
Goode knows exactly the type of character he is supposed to be channelling and measures his performance perfectly, right to the borderline of pastiche, while Kidman is well-suited to playing the bored, desperate housewife. Wasikowska gives an equally strong turn; India is disturbed, tortured and only ever half-innocent, a high school student and social outcast trying desperately to become adult.
Her burgeoning sexuality is essential to the film and the way it develops as the plot takes shape is as inventive as it is disturbing. As you would expect from Park, there are some controversial moments, including a violent masturbation scene, but it is mostly kept respectable enough. Sexual desire is portrayed through orgasmic, dionysian piano duets, composed and performed by Philip Glass, or dancing provocatively to the inimitable Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. The soundtrack works exceptionally well, as does Clint Mansell’s atmospheric score.
What is most interesting about Stoker is the way it imbalances, blurs the distinctions between reality and illusion, objectivity and subjectivity. There is some clever editing that toys with perspective and renders scenes out of sequence, implying that everything requires a second look. The film’s main weakness, though, is that some things still don’t quite add up. India can hear voices through a wall at a great distance and paint the inside of a vase without being able to see it, but, at times, is prone to missing what is right in front of her nose. It is meant to be disorienting, we are supposed to continually question what exactly is going on, but some plot elements are left underdeveloped, while others are verging on fantastical.
It is necessary to suspend disbelief, but the quickening pace ensures it never becomes too much of an issue. The second half is engrossing, particularly when the violence escalates and the complete family history is revealed. From the opening lines onward, there is much exploration of self-determination; the film questions whether we can ever be held responsible for what we become, especially when our identity is contrived before we are fully conscious of it. At the end of Oldboy, the central character takes responsibility for his actions in an infamous scene, whereas in Stoker the opposite occurs. An intimation of cultural differences, perhaps. Stoker is violent, but it is more perverse than horrifying, seductive than repulsive. It is a gloriously entertaining piece of cinema, brazen and almost tawdry, without meaning or conscience.