Review: Stoker (2013)
Editor’s Note: Stoker opens in limited release today, March 1st
The name “Stoker” is synonymous with Bram Stoker, the 19th-century Gothic author best known for writing Dracula, the genre-redefining vampire novel. “Stoker” also has a second meaning, of course: to “stoke”, as in to encourage, to foster, or to promote. Both meanings have some relevance—the latter more than former—to South Korean filmmaker Chan-Wook Park’s (Thirst, The Vengeance Trilogy, Joint Security Area) English-language debut Stoker. It’s an ultra-stylish—if not quite ultra-violent—Southern Gothic psychological horror written by actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller (TV’s Prison Break) as a revisionist, modern-day take on the 1943 suspense thriller Shadow of a Doubt, a film many consider Hitchcock’s first stateside masterpiece.
Park and Miller bookend Stoker with the central character India (Mia Wasikowska) walking though a sun-kissed field, musing on the apparent immutability of human nature—in effect setting up the nature vs nurture conflict familiar to anyone with or without a pop psychology degree—before flashing back to one of, if not the, worst days in India’s life: the burial of her beloved father Richard (Dermot Mulroney). Via embedded flashbacks we learn that India and Richard shared an intimate bond, a bond that categorically excluded India’s mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Evelyn makes an elaborate show of mourning Richard’s death, but it doesn’t fool India or their longtime housekeeper (and India’s surrogate mother) Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville).
Park explicitly references Rope, Psycho, and Frenzy, each one a blackly comic exploration of sexual repression, perversity, and death. That’s a roundabout way of suggesting that Stoker will explore, if only superficially, the same subjects.
In a seemingly oneiric moment, Richard’s long-lost brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears at the funeral, uninvited and inappropriately dressed. In short order, he seduces Evelyn—an easy mark given her emotional fragility and obvious sexual attraction to Charlie—and attempts to seduce India for reasons initially left unclear. India’s long black hair and archaic clothing suggest a cross between a Goth girl and a young Amish woman; the lack of modern technology in their home adds to the sense of time stopping at the edge of the Stokers’ property line. Later, Park and Miller segue from a three-character chamber drama to a high-school melodrama with the artistically inclined, introspective India the obvious outsider. Another teenager, Whip (Alden Ehrenreich), enters the picture as a prospective boyfriend for India, but Park and Miller have something far more bizarre and perverse in mind.
While Stoker takes its narrative and character cues from Shadow of a Doubt, setting up conflicting, repressed desires and emotions and long-buried family secrets, Park explicitly references Rope, Psycho, and Frenzy, each one a blackly comic exploration of sexual repression, perversity, and death. That’s a roundabout way of suggesting that Stoker will explore, if only superficially, the same subjects. Per Park’s oeuvre, revenge—justified or not—wends its way through Stoker, but at its core it’s a film that turns on the cruel—but by no means arbitrary—games played by the central trio: Evelyn’s desires blind her to Charlie’s real intentions; India discovers at least one of Charlie’s secrets, yet continues to engage and encourage him, blurring the line between the pursued and the pursuer.
For all Park’s thematic obsessions, he’s best known as a visual stylist, and with Stoker he does not disappoint. Working again with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, Park fills the Stoker estate with an overripe, oversaturated color palette…
Throughout, the nature vs nurture conflict reasserts itself. Does India’s biological connection to Charlie mean that she’s just his female analogue, waiting for him to help bring out her true nature, or is she her father’s daughter? Even there, however, it’s not quite so simple. Richard taught India hunting, but it’s not clear she learned anything about the sanctity of life, human or otherwise. And with a cold, callous, calculating mother, there’s more than a hint that India is fated to repeat the (potentially violent) patterns of the past. Ultimately, Stoker turns on India’s decision, like her Hitchcockian forebear, to follow or reject Charlie’s path. India’s decision, however, isn’t quite as certain or definitive as that of her predecessor. It’s far more fluid and equivocal, in keeping with Park’s oeuvre.
For all Park’s thematic obsessions, he’s best known as a visual stylist, and with Stoker he does not disappoint. Working again with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, Park fills the Stoker estate with an overripe, oversaturated color palette, not-so-subtly suggesting the Stoker family’s corruption and decadence. He also fills the film with visual motifs—an overlong belt; shoes; eggs; spiders—that link violence and sex, not to mention sexual awakening (India’s), and aural cues like India’s opening and closing narration that suggests a link not to anything in Hitchcock’s work, but to Terrence Malick, specifically Badlands and its depiction of a young woman drawn into a charismatic sociopath’s killing spree. Stoker’s violence however, while too graphic for some moviegoers, shows a restraint noticeably absent from Park’s Korean films, undoubtedly a result of the need to keep it rated “R” rather than the less commercially viable “NC-17” rating.