Outside of an appreciation for the freeze frame nature of the picturesque visuals, there’s little else to appreciate when it comes to Chan-wook Park‘s English-language debut, Stoker. An infatuation with the look of Stoker causes the film to suffer greatly. The unnatural mise-en-scÃ¨ne is so precise, it allows no room to breathe, yielding empty characters who exhibit zero evidence of humanity leaving the viewer utterly detached.
India Stoker, played by Mia Wasikowska in an erect, detached-from-the-world manner, has just lost her father. She has no friends and is teased at school. You’d think a comparison to Brian De Palma’s Carrie would be apt, but this film isn’t operating on the same brain waves. Instead, India may as well be a cyborg with manufactured feelings, telegraphed at every turn. And while grief stricken over the loss of her father, we’re never allowed to feel the weight of that reality. We aren’t welcomed into that world and even when it would appear an invite is being extended, the scenes are so abstract and vacant we walk away feeling nothing.
At home India doesn’t get along with her mother (Nicole Kidman), and perhaps never did. Their relationship is strained from the start and things don’t get any better when the uncle she never knew she had moves in for a spell.
Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) is far from normal. Any reasonable person would raise an eyebrow at this guy the minute he opens his mouth or after ten seconds of him staring at you with those empty eyes and smug grin. India, as I’ve implied, is far from normal and her mother is too busy chugging wine to notice and has even taken to creating something of an inappropriate relationship with her brother-in-law. Their grief, of course, opens the door to this kind of behavior, but at some point natural instinct has got to come into play. We aren’t lead to believe these people are idiots after all.
So Charlie sticks around, India mopes and mommy is stuck in the middle within conversations that turn down strange alleyways. Charlie makes dinners he never eats (and yet always makes himself a plate) and the housemaid has gone missing. Oh my, whatever could be going on? Where did this Charlie guy come from anyway? Europe you say? And why didn’t India know anything about his existence until now?
Stoker would play better silently on a wall in a museum where patrons could glimpse a couple minutes or so as they passed by. Seen out of context the story would be far more intriguing than it is here and perhaps even the shower masturbation scene could give some art community snobs something to dissect for five minutes before adjusting their monocles.
The only character that exhibits any evidence of humanity is Kidman’s. She’s lost and yet trying to figure things out. Some may argue India’s reaction to her father’s death is a natural and human reaction. That I’m not arguing. There is an intensity and consternation to India, but the artificiality of the world surrounding her every move takes away from any authenticity her performance may otherwise earn. Kidman, at least, breaks free from the plastic-wrapped world around her, be it because that’s how her character was written or how she chose to play it, either way, there she is.
Goode’s Uncle Charlie (a name I can’t stand) is no different than India, only the intrigue surrounding him is meant to be the mystery of Who is he? Too bad the cat is out of the bag within the first few minutes as he stands off at a distance during his brother’s funeral and then asks to stay with the family as if he needs the requisite invitation to cross the threshold. No, don’t think the vampire angle is lost on this film. After all the family name is Stoker.
The screenplay is from Wentworth Miller (“Prison Break”), but I can’t tell if this film plays out how he wrote it or if Park took so many liberties with its tone and how the characters should be played that very little of Miller’s original vision remains.
I did, however, write down one line of dialogue I really liked: “We are not responsible for what we come to be.” There’s a lot to unpack from that line and in a better movie it would have been fun to do so. Stoker is so blatant there’s nothing to consider by the film’s end.
I’d like to use that line to find some excuse for where this film went off the rails, but that would only serve to offer an out. Park is responsible for what this film came to be and for as nuanced as you’d think an art piece such as this would be, it’s a blinding bat to the cranium of predictability and boredom. Story is sacrificed for style, something Park avoided with films like Oldboy and even Thirst. Something may have been lost in translation or perhaps this is exactly what was intended, either way, it didn’t work.