Film Reviews

Stoker Park Chan-wook

Rating - 5/10

The first image that comes to mind from Park Chan-wook's English debut, Stoker, is of the vampiric variety.  Perhaps unable to transcend the literary association of its title or reveling in misdirection, the film tries to abandon those notions in favor of something more ambiguously sinister.  A large part of Stoker almost absurdly augments those feelings by positioning its characters at strange perspectives in relation to one another as if they are literally dancing around the obvious revelation on the horizon.  Repressed teenager India (Mia Wasikowska) of an upper class family introduces herself with voiceover in the opening minutes, as if she is omnipotently overseeing the forthcoming events.  However, for the remainder of the film, Wentworth Miller's slow-burning script and stylistic methods conversely intend to keep her and audiences in the dark while taking broad stabs at intrigue, particularly with the use of slow-motion, unnaturally crisp sounds, and distorted sense of time (fashion and music remnants of the 1960s as well as cell phones of the 2000s all seem present).  Initially led by the socially detached and precise India, dressed in blandly conservative attire and saddle shoes, Stoker could superficially be described as a coming-of-age story for Wednesday Addams.  Its designs also seem to leech off Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), romanticizing a certain period of suspenseful cinema while simultaneously facilitating the perverse intersection of unimaginative gore and sexual provocation in modern horror.  Caught between these two aesthetics, Stoker neither feels truly involving or realized.  It comes across as a rather confused film that fetishizes style over content, masculinity over femininity, futilely wishing to prove otherwise.

On India's eighteenth birthday, she comes to learn her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), has perished in a horrific car crash that is never seen.  Instead of forging her identity, the film throws too much subsequent attention upon this underdeveloped father-daughter relationship, which is never visually represented beyond a few moments of flashback as the two lie in wait in the grass with hunting rifles.  Stoker consistently represses India's identity through other male characters (failing the Bechdel test), just as her mysteriously kempt Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), Richard's brother, suddenly appears like some nocturnal creature.  India's mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), caught in the grieving process, naturally welcomes him as part of the family, a pseudo-replacement for Richard.  Charlie invites himself to stay at their house, giving no reason other than it's "important to him."  If that weren't suspicious enough, he continues to court both India and Evie with lavish, overcompensating gestures that promise to reveal a dark secret.  In this manner, Charlie's actions are unbelievable, as his motivations would not go officially unchecked; instead, as a plodding storytelling device, India just internalizes her impression and avoids him.  She briefly cries out in angst to her mother, but Evie is hypnotized by Charlie's charms.  For the majority of its running time, Stoker prefers to promote Charlie's presence in favor of the teenager who introduces it.  Decadent use of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood's 1967 song "Summer Wine" dubs it as Charlie's theme, blatantly evoking his intoxicating qualities around women.  The film tries to justify the ignorance of a sketchy past through the man's coercive magnetism, but it again seems to be relying upon an outmoded and more innocent age, further confirming reason for the hazy time period.

By stifling India's development through the plot and her family's intentions, the film stunts itself, as she is perhaps the only character who promises to transcend the well-worn tropes of the psychological thriller or nostalgic period piece.  The bullies at her school are typically asinine thugs who speak entirely in pun-riddled taunts, and Sheriff Howard (Ralph Brown) plays the well-meaning but obliviously doomed soul.  Wasikowska's performance as India offers hints of the unpredictability indicated in the opening scenes after the funeral where she is at a crossroads, but the film seems so determined to head down more conventional paths that have been paved long before it.  While Stoker certainly drinks up its influences with distinctively moody visual suggestion, it ultimately commits the error of glorifying violence that doesn't mesh with the film's leisurely exposition.  Tension is successfully sustained for a brief period, but the references, visual and verbal, never quite coalesce or lead anywhere.  A spider inching its way up India's leg on a couple separate occasions could suggest the shadow self in a more appropriated or drawn context; instead, the arachnids seem to be cut and pasted as stock images of the frightful (perhaps like that spider that crawls across Jim Carrey's face in 1996's The Cable Guy).  During a dinner conversation, it is revealed that Evie speaks French, and yet she never utters a word or explains this history, as the focus creeps back over to Charlie.  Furthermore, India is supposedly an honor student, and the film seems more content to mention it as an offhand comment rather than demonstrate her discipline beyond private piano practice, which (ahem) climaxes in a duet with Charlie.  Stoker is an occasionally intriguing film that doesn't realize the potential of its supposed star, India, and her coming out party feels less about her than the male personalities who have shaped her.