STOKER Review: It’s a Family Affair
Your 18th birthday is the most significant birthday you will have in your life. Sure, other birthdays represent key life milestones (13 to become a teenager; 16 to get your license; 21 to drink legally; 30 and 40 and 50 to get to those nice round numbers); but turning 18 is most significant because it is the ultimate rite of passage. At 18, you officially become an adult, and you are – or at least should be to a certain extent – ready to handle what life throws your way. But I’ve never known a person who goes to bed at 17 and wakes up at 18 being ready to handle her father dying in a car crash, and the creepy uncle she never knew she had suddenly moving into her house, and her mother throwing herself at the creepy uncle, and people mysteriously vanishing.
Such is the tragic series of events that befalls a newly-minted 18-year-old girl in Chan-wook Park‘s Stoker, a film that answers the question I never knew I wanted to ask: What would the film Lolita have been like if it had been directed by Alfred Hitchcock?
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a girl whose world has been shattered. On her 18th birthday, her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) is killed in a car crash, leaving her to live alone with her emotionally distant mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). But during Richard’s funeral appears a brother that India never knew her father had: Charlie (Matthew Goode), a man who can only be described, at least at first blush, as a world-traveler. In the days that follow, Charlie entrenches himself in the lives of Evelyn and India and stays long enough that he must eventually wear his late brother’s clothing. All of this is intoxicating for the widow, who fawns all over her late husband’s handsome younger brother and revels in the attention he pays her.
India, however, is dubious, and she has every right to be. Things about Uncle Charlie just never seem quite right, and when he has some type of conflict with head housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) and India’s great aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), those two women are never to be heard from again. But just as her suspicion of her Uncle Charlie grows, so too does her infatuation in him.
On the surface, Stoker is a deliberately-paced psychological thriller. That sounds like a euphemism for “slow” and maybe it is, but in this case it is slow as in watching water come to a rolling boil as opposed to slow as in watching ice melt. No part of the film is ever rushed to get to the next thing, nor is any part of it shocking for the sake of being shocking. It is also unconventional; unlike lesser films in the genre, when the whodunit makes a right turn and becomes a game of cat-and-mouse, where either the antagonist is discovered and hunts the protagonist, or the protagonist makes a discovery and chases the antagonist, this film instead turns left, the protagonist makes the discovery, and then not only sticks around to see how things play out, but actually engages the antagonist in ways you wouldn’t expect.
Moving closer to the core is a film rich with atmosphere. The Stoker house is old, which you might expect in a film such as this, but just as director Park zagged left with the whodunit aspect of the plot, he also zags left with the house, too. Despite the sense of foreboding, the house itself is not haunted or creepy, but rather cold and lifeless. Where a haunted house, while brimming with death, still conveys a sense of having once been full of life, the Stoker house has the feeling that nothing of any consequence had ever happened there; it was lived in, but not LIVED in. The exception, of course, is the basement, which brings with it the right amount of creepiness without any shadowy melodrama or near-scares. Other settings are perfectly atmospheric as well, most notably the fleabag motel where Gwendolyn checks in; it isn’t so seedy as to be uninhabitable, but it is just seedy enough to be uncomfortably inhabitable.
Deeper still is captivating symbolism, from the saddle shoes worn by India to the spider crawling up her leg, and from an umbrella that Uncle Charlie leaves for her to the meals he prepares for the family that he himself never eats. Throw in a piano, an unexpected shower scene, guns, and a belt, and you have so many things throughout the film that tell a story all by themselves.
But at its core, Stoker is a mesmerizing study in characters and relationships – not only of, and among, the three principals, but of the late father as well.
Evelyn is something of an ice queen whose emotional detachment from India is clearly borne of India’s close relationship with her father; although not referred to as such, India, an only child, seemed to be the son Richard never had. Given that she lost her daughter to her husband and vice versa, Evelyn jumps at the chance to snare the next best thing, her husband’s brother Charlie, but his infatuation with India eventually becomes evident to her, turning her emotional distance into unabashed jealousy. Those I saw the movie with were critical of Kidman and her performance, but I found her to be quite effective in the part; yes, a lesser-known actress could have done well here, but casting the role of a mother-turned-second sexual fiddle to her newly-legal daughter with movie-star Kidman is shrewd casting, and Kidman makes the most of the minimalist character.
Casting Wasikowska was also well-played, not only for her acting ability, but for her lack of glamor. While the film is reminiscent of Lolita in that Uncle Charlie is infatuated with the teenage girl, to have cast some starlet to play the part as a sexed-up coquette would have changed the film from taut thriller to Male Fantasy #12, and in the process would have fast-tracked the film to a midnight showing on Cinemax (see: Poison Ivy, The Crush, et al). Wasikowska, as that non-stereotype, is also the perfect foil for the glamorous Kidman, reinforcing the importance of Kidman in the Evelyn role. Evelyn has so much beauty, yet the ordinary India is the center of men’s attention.
But the real star of the film is Goode as Uncle Charlie. He is the right amount handsome – someone who is good looking but neither Hollywood nor supermodel gorgeous – and he has this uncanny ability to come across as charming, yet just creepy enough to unnerve you. It’s really rather impressive, as too much charm would neuter his potential for being an effective sociopath, while too much creep would make him too lecherous, and thus easier to root against.
I was very impressed with this film, and since I’ve not seen Oldboy, Chan-wook Park‘s most famous (and many say best) directorial effort, Stoker has my interest piqued to search out it and other titles.
Two notes of trivia: the screenplay for Stoker was written by Wentworth Miller, who is best known for starring on TV’s Prison Break; and this is the last film that the late Tony Scott produced, and it was a little melancholic to see his name in the opening credits.
Out of five stars …