In Stoker, Director Park Chan-wook follows 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) as she carefully navigates the suspicious arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) at her father’s funeral. The film nods to Hitchcock’s classic Shadow of a Doubt; there’s a mystery and a possible murder, but, like in Hitchock, the story is really about India’s psycho-sexual awakening.
This is the American-film debut of director Park Chan-wook, best known for his Vengeance Trilogy, which includes the 2003 classic Oldboy. Park is South Korea’s resident purveyor of revenge fantasies, insect symbolism, and probing morality tales. In his often-violent films, he explores the boundaries of our social contract, forcing the audience to reappraise our most tightly held norms regarding sexuality and violence. He continues to explore these same themes in Stoker, although arguably with less clarity or depth.
Stoker uses its characters’ depravity as a jumping-off point for exploring right and wrong, good and evil. As the plot unfolds, all three main characters commit or condone what society would consider an unacceptable act of violence. With slow, deliberate pacing—and a camera that lingers on its subjects—the film effectively conveys impending danger, suspicion, and wonderful moments of suppressed rage. Details surrounding India’s father’s death and her uncle’s arrival are withheld from both the her and the audience, slowly fed to us as they become relevant to India’s search for the truth. When finally given, new information does more than just heighten suspense—it adds an extra layer to Park’s ongoing exploration of the morality’s borderlands. When characters ignore the facts, the audience is forced to question the evil inherent in passivity and inaction. Inversely, we’re also asked to question why uncovering “the truth” is seen as inherently good, since each character does so only for do their own selfish reasons.
Before we get ahead of ourselves (and I get caught up in my love for India), I’d like to point out that Stoker critics have legitimate complaints. For example, even though most of the film is a highly stylized gothic noir, the scenes at India’s high school scenes are bizarrely breezy and conventional. Maybe he was using the bright lights of the school to expose the oft-sinister nature of our wholesome strongholds. Or was asking us to question who we despise more: the young men who ceaselessly harass India or an uncle who might be a serial killer? It would have been nice to explore either of these questions. Sadly, the light tone, mixed with cheesy teen characters and awkward writing make these key scenes miss their mark.
More than tone, critics have complained about Park’s choice of style over substance. The director continues his long-time collaboration with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, who has once again helped him to create a beautiful film, and admittedly in some scenes the style is far better than the dialogue. The primary screenwriter’s name is Wentworth Miller. You may know him from Prison Break or Dinotopia or (my favorite) Popular. Or you may know him as the hunky love interest in two Mariah Carey music videos. Not surprisingly, the best parts of the movie are when no one is speaking. Obviously that impairs the film to a point. However, Park successfully rebounds, somewhat canceling out the need for effective dialogue by focusing more on visual storytelling and his actors’ performances.
Nicole Kidman’s naturally stiff, steely demeanor worked well for her fun and campy portrayal of Evelyn Stoker, India’s mother. Despite his over-use of crazy eyes, Matthew Goode was also enjoyable as the boyish Uncle Charlie (Park has compared him in interviews to both Norman Bates and Peter Pan). However, it’s Mia Wasikowska who stands out. Her still watchfulness carries the audience through scenes that might otherwise fall flat. She seems aware of her body in the tradition of a stage actor (she used to dance), perfectly reflecting the suppressed morbid impulses of her character. When India imparts physical violence, Wasikowska attacks with a believable amount of force. When attacked, she has neither super-human strength nor crippling levels of cliché docility.
In that vein, seeing the film toy with our expectations of a female protagonist was especially enjoyable. India is at the center of the carnage—not as a young, ghostly twin sister or a terrified, busty girlfriend, but as a governing force. Although at one point in the movie, India is assaulted and overpowered, she almost immediately experiences the pleasure of revenge without self-imposed guilt or legal repercussions. Unlike most films, India’s strengths are not attributed to her maleness; she wears the same 1940s-style little girl frock for most of the film. Granted, young female virgins are often depicted as inexplicably powerful, even deific. (These powers usually disappear once the woman loses her virgin status.) Thankfully, in Stoker, India remains a strong, powerful character throughout.
Arguably, Stoker is not without certain unfortunate archetypal characters who traditionally act as shepherds and gatekeepers for female protagonists: the father figure who imparts wisdom, the male savior who acts as protector, and the lover who controls her sexual awakening. Thankfully, this director dislikes sentimentality. Park takes these beloved figures and unceremoniously exposes their failings.
This isn’t the story of a hot young woman who’s good with guns and has her very own male guide to lead her through life (see Sucker Punch, and Scott Glenn’s character who’s actually named Wise Man). India’s relationship with her father is more similar to that of Dexter Morgan (Dexter) and his father. Unlike Dexter, however, she doesn’t bore us to death with a newfound love for wife and children. Park stays true to the character and allows her to end the film without adopting a clear moral code.