Unusual. That is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Stoker. The film is unlike anything I've seen recently - the director Chan-wook Park has very unusual, vivid style and his movies always feel like stepping in a very weird and creepy dream. Stoker is his English language debut and the film blends between usual Park's style and this new component which is the story that is much more approachable than any other told in Park's movies yet at the same time it's very hard to understand what drives the characters and guess what lies ahead.
The film follows teenage India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), strange, quiet girl who has just lost her father whom she loved a lot. India lives in an old, big house with her mother - fragile and beautiful Evelyn (fantastic Nicole Kidman). During her father's funeral India notices someone watching her from the distance. That person turns out to be her father's brother - mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode).
Stoker is an odd combination - it is a mixture of coming of age movie, Lolita-like tale and origin story of a disturbed killer. The film's script isn't particularly strong - it was written by Wentworth Miller, yes the same Wentworth Miller who starred in Prison Break. The story has a lot of shortcomings - in the pursuit of creepy ambiance and paying homages to a bunch of other movies something is lost here - logic, emotions, the reasons why.
There is Jackie Weaver's character - India's aunt who arrives with a lot of questions and warnings. She comes over for dinner and before she leaves she gives India a note with her number and plea for India to call her. Why not just speak to India? While it did provided a cool montage and very effective phone booth scene it really lacked the proper reasoning, as did a lot of things in the movie. But what the film lacks in story was compensated with exquisite direction.
Park's movies aren't always easy to understand
- plenty of times when I watched his films I had this feeling of
uneasiness and confusion at the tiniest scenes because I didn't
understand what they were supposed to mean. Even in his Thirst, which is my favorite movie of his, there were all of those enigmatic, symbolic tidbits thrown in that took some time to decipher. With Stoker more often than not I felt the mystery and weird moments were more of script's flaws than intentional maneuvers, but they were still interesting.
From the strange relationship between Charlie and the housekeeper through spider creeping up India's leg to India's behaviour and personality you are at loss watching this film a whole bunch of times but it's interesting enough for you to try and figure out why the events unfold the way they do. That is the movie's strength - the characters may seem cold but you still want to understand them and get to the bottom of all of this.
Stoker puts a lot of emphasis on details that either symbolize something or will become important later on - India's shoes, the belt, the birthday gifts, the ice cream. There is something hiding behind each of those things and the mystery surrounding India's shoes in particular was cleared up in a very effective scene that symbolized her becoming an adult.
The film centers around India's fascination with her uncle. She didn't even know he existed and now he is staying in her house. Charlie traveled around the world - or so India was told - and is quite sophisticated and very mysterious. He clearly takes an interest in India - he watches her, follows her, gives her weird looks. India isn't as much afraid as she is annoyed at the disturbance in her home. She is also very curious.
India is extremely
attracted to Charlie - there is even an amazing piano scene where they
both play and at one point India seems to achieve climax solely because
of Charlie being next to her and them playing so perfectly together. It's not so much sexual as it is India literally achieving ecstasy when she finds someone a lot like her who also fascinates her at the same time.
This is also what drives Charlie's obsession towards her - the feeling that they are the same. The thing is, though, and it's ultimately the reasoning behind most of the events in the movie, that certain kind of people, in case of those characters - sociopaths - aren't really meant to be with someone else. They are meant to be on their own. India who was told how to hunt by her father early in her life understands who she is much better than Charlie.
The film has interesting ideas, mostly the concept that certain traits, inflictions and instincts are hidden in bloodlines. I don't believe that the child of someone who is evil will be evil too but the way the movie presents the idea of "hunter gene" or whatever else to call it is fascinating. India's father knew she may want to kill in the future so he tried to control her instincts by taking her hunting. I would not be surprised if Miller turned out to be a fan of Dexter.
Despite Charlie and India having same instincts they are different in crucial ways - India's father was loving and caring and her mother, though behaving like sedated beauty queen who tries to have everything in control, cares about her daughter. India may not feel much but she is not pure evil. At least not yet.
Mia Wasikowska was a prefect choice for India. She is an extremely talented young actress and she was mesmerizing in Jane Eyre. Her India is very interesting to watch as you never know what is going on in her head and what she will do next. She is kinda like the teenage version of sadder, more delicate Wednesday Adams. While Wasikowska was great here, originally India was supposed to be played by Carey Mulligan, which would certainly be interesting.
Matthew Good did an amazing job in the movie. He was cast after Colin Firth dropped out and to be perfectly honest I just can't envision Firth playing a character like that. Another choices that were considered were James Franco and Michael Fassbender. The former would be a disaster but the latter? As much as Goode is a good looking man, Fassbender has this incredible sinister magnetism about him.
Still, Goode was great and he really made Charlie into a fascinating character. The way he carries himself certainly attracts attention and he can be both interesting and frightening at various parts of the movie. It was not an easy role considering some of the steamier scenes with India but Goode really played it well without hitting false notes. There are also scenes were we see vulnerable Charlie which were very well acted.
I really liked the direction the movie took in the end as after the big reveal I really hated Charlie, given the thing that he has done revealed in the flashback. Also considering all the hints and India's hunting hobby it was the only way to end this movie. On the other hand as well made as the ending was I felt it needed a bit more of a punch.
I have to mention Nicole Kidman's performance - she was simply amazing here. She only has about 20-30 minutes of screen time but she is unforgettable. She added so much to her character - fear, sadness, longing. Her Evelyn is aging beauty who is horribly alone. She loses her husband, her daughter is cold, her life is empty. You can see that Evelyn is extremely fragile from the beginning. So fragile it really looks like anything could push her over the edge of sanity.
Evelyn is such a tragic figure - she reminded me a lot of Blanche Dubois - the way she kept talking about silly little things with girlish smile yet you could see the emptiness in her eyes. I felt so terrible for her character and it actually made me dislike India. I watched the movie because the story was interesting but as for India I didn't root for her as I found her constant rejection of her mother incredibly cruel.
It's hard to ignore the obvious nods to Shadow of a Doubt and Bram Stoker's Dracula. I only wish they were more sinister than they turn out to be. Take for instance the dinner scene where India eats the whole meal Charlie prepared and he doesn't take a bite. Park's explanation was that he wanted to show that Charlie is different species, just like Dracula who never eats anything. It just seems a bit lazy and not thought through.
Just like in Dracula, we are dealing with bond between people that is as strange as it is strong. Dracula spent years loving one woman and finding her in someone else, reincarnated and here we have Charlie who no doubt sees the copy of himself in India and watches over her, writes to her, sends her things. It's a very strange bond as he is both her mentor and final obstacle to overcome.
The film is beautifully realized and the cinematography is mesmerizing. Each shot looks like a very surreal, perfectly framed painting. Often times the character is on the edge of the frame giving us the opportunity to focus on the detailed surroundings. The editing is something that is not easy to get use to here - it's fast, abrupt, there are many cuts between takes and there is a number of montages that move very quickly so you can't take your eyes off screen even for a second.
What adds a lot to the movie is splendid music composed by Clint Mansell. He is one of my favorite composers and his work here is fantastic - seductive, eerie, mysterious. There is also a beautiful piano piece by Philip Glass as well as perfectly placed "Summer wine".
I can't help but think that perhaps it was a mistake for Park to be the director here. While he handled the story very well and his style of film making is very unique I feel someone whose style is calmer and more reflective would be better suited here. The film flies through shots and events so fast there is no room for the camera - and the viewer' mind - to linger at anything which is quite exhausting.
Stoker has a number of noticeable flaws but it's also one of those movies that you should see more than once. There are many mysteries here and a lot of room for interpretation. Its visual beauty is certainly something to keep marveling at as well. If you are a fan of Park you will definitely like his one as his style is in each frame of the movie.
Stoker (2013, 99 min)
Plot: After India's father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.
Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson (contributing writer)
Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode