Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver, Phyllis Somerville, Dermot Mulroney
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing violent and sexual content)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 2/28/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 1, 2013
Alfred Hitchcock once advised, "Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murders;" with Stoker, director Park Chan-wook takes that instruction to heart. In fact, there's barely a line between sex and death in the movie, which tells the story of a strange young woman who has been repressing feelings both sexual and violent and comes to an awakening soon after she turns 18.
She's emotionally distant, refusing to let anyone touch her in even the slightest manner, hovering in corners to avoid detection even by relatives, and clandestinely moving through the inside and around the outside of the house when she suspects someone might try to talk to her or when she wants to spy on what people are doing. Park's camera and Wentworth Miller's screenplay maintain a certain distance from the movie's subjects, too. The former is almost constantly in motion, even during the most mundane of situations; it's as if the camera itself cannot decide whether it wants to stay away from the characters in revulsion or sneak up on them in perverse curiosity. The latter reveals the characters in riddles and little hints here and there until circumstances confirm—multiple times—what we've already deduced.
We suspect, for example, that there's something devious underneath the girl's stony exterior; there's an entire room in the mansion devoted to the various birds she's hunted over the years. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) used to hunt with her father, who told her that sometimes one must "do something bad to keep you from doing something worse." He must have suspected what no one else could about her.
At the start of the movie, India's father dies in a terrible car wreck and takes that information about his daughter to the grave. Her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) never got along with India; she may even resent her daughter for taking up so much of her late husband's attention. He used to prepare fancy meals, Evelyn tells her at dinner one night before trying to twist the dagger by pointing out that the cooking stopped after India was born. The mother knows so little about the daughter that she doesn't realize such passive-aggressive jabs mean nothing to India.
The impetus for their discord and India's gradual development is the appearance of her uncle, an effortlessly charming man named Charlie (Matthew Goode) whom she never knew existed until he shows up at the house on the day of her father's funeral. Charlie says he's been traveling the globe, but the head housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) and his aunt (Jacki Weaver), who turns up one night to try to explain some things to Evelyn, seem to know otherwise.
Charlie appears to take to Evelyn—and she to him—quite quickly, and India stalks around the house like an emotionally detached Hamlet, chiding her mother with facts about mourning customs throughout history and trying to grasp what her uncle is doing. At first, the movie examines the power struggle between mother and daughter, vying to make their unspoken but obvious opinion of Charlie the dominant one in the house. Evelyn is enthralled by and clearly infatuated with this new man in her life giving her the attention she has craved for so long. India suspects Charlie of some wrongdoing (What she perceives that might be—trying to take over the role of her beloved father, manipulating her weak mother, or perhaps some deeper and darker understanding of the man—is never clear) and refuses to acknowledge his attempts to warm himself to her.
India, of course, is correct in her suspicions, and people begin disappearing. As India begins to uncover those mysteries, it becomes even more difficult to form an attachment to this hollow shell of a protagonist. The character's reactions to these various revelations define her, and it turns out that there is not much to her. When she discovers a body in her cobweb-infested basement, she is unimpressed by and even accepting of it. It's clear that Miller is gradually revealing the extent of India's odd mind, but the conventional mystery shifts focus from her.
The movie does eventually play with those conventions once the truth about Charlie comes to light (That process is repeated in a series of flashbacks), and it does so with a morbid sense of humor. Above all, it's in the juxtaposition of murder and lust, with the removal of a belt conveying the possibility of pleasure but the reality of pain (One moment features two men—one unbeknownst to the other—performing the same act with the intention of violence). In a key moment, we're led to believe that India is sobbing over a terrible memory until the camera moves down to disclose something far more sinister, echoing an earlier orgasmic fantasy of hers about playing a piano duet.
From the impeccable fashion sense of the characters to the Gothic atmosphere of romantic horror that concentrates on the latter, Stoker is perhaps too cold for its own good. The chilly nature of the material eventually has a point in the form of a last-minute punch line that sees what India has become. We may not like her any more than before, but at least she finally has some personality.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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