Film Review: Stoker (FOX Searchlight)

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by Clayton Shank

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The next time you feel disconnected from your family, see how your emotions line up against the family in Stoker, Korean director Park-Chan Wook‘s (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) crossover English film. If the comparison is favorable, you shouldn’t be allowed near other people. The script, by actor Wentworth Miller, is a study in hereditary psychopathy, and how a certain variable introduced into a delicate balance can destroy illusions of normalcy and summon demons previously held captive.  To be clear, I don’t want to suggest this a universally relatable story, but rather one we can watch and be absorbed in with morbid curiosity. With artful visuals and deliberate camerawork, Stoker maintains a consistently creepy and sly psychosexual tension, even if the conclusion is not as satisfying or resonant as we would wish.

Teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a sulking introvert of a pale shade, that rare kind of raven-haired, troubled beauty who’s targeted by hormone-raged boys when she’s not staring blankly at a wall. Early on, we discover she finds no qualms about behaving violently when provoked, and can get at least one more utilitarian use out of a standard #2 pencil. The story starts with a funeral service for Richard (Dermot Mulroney), India’s father, a basically good man who met a horrendous fate inside an ignited car.  Mulroney may just be the story’s most central and pivotal character, which is odd considering he’s dead the length of the film and thus referred to in flashback and exposition. In the bizarre and fractured network of the Stoker family, he functions as a bonding adhesive, reciprocating love to his wife, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), a deeply disconnected and scarred woman who mothers India as if she just met her at a battered wives’ conference, and by occupying India’s free time with activities like recreational hunting. The hunting, it turns out, serves a critical purpose for India that is nullified both with Richard’s death and the arrival of a mysterious guest.

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First seen at the funeral, things get odd when India’s estranged Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) starts ingratiating himself into the family. From the onset, something is wrong with Charlie.  For one, he may as well be a complete stranger. His appearance begs the obvious questions: where has he been, what has he been doing, and what intentions does he have for the family? Initially, it seems he desires Evelyn, but then a series of unsettling events pollute the waters into ambiguous greys. Consider the scene in which Charlie sits in with India on the piano. Shot like a dreamy daze, every key stroke in their dual performance triggers a sexual awakening for India that lies somewhere in between infatuation and masochism. While India is held transfixed, Charlie acts as if everything is according to plan. How exactly does India relate with Charlie? Initially she is repulsed by his very existence, but the final answer is decidedly more complex and easily the pulse of the film.

It can safely be assumed from the trailer, and thus unspoiled, that Charlie is psychotic. The lingering question Stoker brings to the table is the effect he will have on India, who obviously runs on an uneven, precarious mixture herself.  Along the way, we learn specifics of the troubled back story chained to Charlie’s actions and motives, and how he serves as a catalyst for the impending implosion of the Stoker family. Perhaps implosion is the wrong word; realization may be more accurate.

Chan-Wook directs with seamless ease in his first brush with stateside cinema, bringing the trademark shock sensibilities of his Vengeance Trilogy to the dilapidated cracks of gothic suburbia. Cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung (Park’s longtime collaborator) adds an extra layer of paranoia by not so much framing his characters as he does ambush them, swooping and curving the camera in broad stokes to further emphasize the anxious realities of a mutating family. Miller’s script contains enough subtleties to sustain our interest through two acts and even flirt with greatness, but the resolution he offers feels inevitable and uncharged, especially considering the erotic and tantalizingly restrained fringe the rest of the film comfortably resides in.

Official Stoker Website

 

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