(SPOILERS) I didn’t much care for Oldboy. I should qualify that. I thought it had an arresting premise, and Chan wook-Park worked wonders during the early stages. But, once his protagonist had escaped his prison (and that incredible fight scene), the structure gradually fell apart for me. It careened into a hysterical (not as in funny) and overwrought conclusion, both in terms of story and the director’s OTT staging. I’m sure many would argue for its brilliance for that very reason, but I felt that I’d been promised something intricate and was then served a rather daft and cod-operatic denouement. I know it’s heresy to say anything negative about Oldboy, but there you are. Stoker’s the first of his films I’ve seen since then, and it continues to eke out territory of dark secrets and fucked up families. It has also a fairly standard plot, one you could imagine adapted by another director to middling results. So this means that Park is the star of the show; it’s his densely textured treatment of the material that makes it stand out. I’ve seen comparisons made to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but the most obvious parallel to the suspense master is that Park takes a solid but unremarkable script and works an at times breath-taking magic on it.
Stoker was penned by Wentworth Miller, star of the sublimely dumb Prison Break. He has cited Shadow of a Doubt as an inspiration for the screenplay (along with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, hence the title/surname of the main characters), down to both pieces featuring a character named Uncle Charlie. There isn’t much depth to his story, or to the characters. Part psychological horror and part domestic drama, we’re never encouraged to quite see this as a readily identifiable world. Much of that may be the hazy, heightened, dreamlike mood with which the director suffuses Miller’s. But it’s also down to the gothic theatricality of the source material.
Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a gothically self-involved girl whose father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a car accident on her 18th birthday. Her relationship with her highly-strung mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is difficult, and the arrival of Richard’s previously unknown brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) serves to make matters more fractious. Charlie shows disturbing attentiveness towards India, who rejects his overtures of friendship. In quick succession the housekeeper and a relative go missing, both of whom knew something of Charlie’s history. Then India discovers the housekeeper’s body in the freezer.
And so parts of this play out like a standard thriller, if a fairly twisted one in terms of untoward familial relations (no surprise, coming from the director of Oldboy). The scene where Charlie confronts Aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) could come straight out any slasher movie, complete with a rundown motel as backdrop (the grime she encounters in her room is almost visceral, so used is she to a more comfortable lifestyle). When India visits the basement, it’s a dark, foreboding environment liable to contain a bogeyman. The school bullying she endures is the only plot thread to break through the claustrophobia of the family home, but even that is heavy with the threat of violence and violation.
When Charlie appears in the woods, as if by magic, to kill the boy attempting to rape India, Park allows it play out in a fairly methodical fashion. Bad things always happen in woods. Even the timely arrival of Charlie is the stuff of Hollywood clichés, if lent an unsettling symbiotic quality by the recognition between the two. It’s only afterwards that the scene, replaying through India’s mind as she showers off the mud and blood, takes on an extraordinary quality. What begins with a girl reliving a brutal attack becomes one of autoerotic ecstasy as she admits her arousal at Charlie’s murderous impulses.
We follow India’s viewpoint throughout, so we are encouraged to identify with her withdrawn yet distinctive gaze. One gets the impression that Miller is a keen follower of Dexter, since the childhood flashbacks strongly echo that series ; India’s father perceives her impulses and trains her accordingly. Of course here there is the dual purpose of making her a hunter, to prepare for any eventuality involving her uncle.
So much of the film is the stuff of familiar plot mechanics and clichés that it really shouldn’t work as well as it does. Charlie as a murderous child isn’t exactly knew, and the sudden revelation of where Charlie was this entire time works entirely because of the flourish Park lends it. And his release on India’s 18th birthday recalls the time-coded banality of Michael Myers, playing up the horror tropes. When India asks, “I’m curious about what happened to Jonathan” we segue into a full account; this is Miller opting for the full Monty rather than subtle hints and unravelling. Sot too, certain developments don’t invite close scrutiny (he has remained in a mental hospital all this time but is remarkably capable, be it in the kitchen or sexcapades with Evelyn).
Park perhaps overuses the reflective flashbacks but tonally it is enriching. Stoker is a feast of imagery, pulling us into India’s thought processes; painting a vase in art class, she depicts the pattern inside, rather than the still life itself. Having stabbed a school bully with a pencil, India later sharpens it in a peel of crimson shards. The piano duet with Charlie is stunningly depicted, as India reaches a euphoric state (they play a piece by Phillip Glass, who was originally set to provide the whole soundtrack). Like her uncle, we have learnt that India doesn’t like to be touched, making the moment even more powerful (there may be a suggestion that she is on the autistic spectrum, but this is really secondary to her primary motivation of self-actualisation). Combing Evelyn’s hair, the camera trains down and dissolves seamlessly into a field of tall grass as India recalls a hunting expedition with he father. Then there’s the incredibly unsubtle symbolism of a spider crawling up her thigh and Charlie unfurling his belt as if in prelude to a sexual encounter (Park’s film persistently teeters on the brink of blackly comic absurdity).
At times Park brings the attentiveness to the microcosm we expect from Nicolas Roeg, but combined with the macabre dissonance of David Lynch. He’s unable to conjure the resonance of either, because the subject matter is so run-of-the-mill, but one cannot deny he milks the screenplay for every nuance and then some. Yet, despite the more Grand Guignol aspects, he also tempers himself in a manner absent from Oldboy; this is about repressed emotions finding release, and Park restricting himself on that level serves the piece. The pacing and editing are astonishingly confident, flowing and ebbing or torrenting as appropriate. The sound work is similarly acute, with a fine score from Clint Mansell.
Park has cast his film well, but it’s Wasikowska who really stands out. Hers is a captivating performance, remote and delicate yet confident and intense. Her large dark eyes are a well of unknowable depths. Yet we identify with her, even as she unfurls herself as a fully-fledged psychopath in the final scene (featuring Ralph Brown, Danny from Withnail & I). This is the sort of role Winona Ryder would have given her eye teeth for back in day, and there’s a trace of Lydia from Beetlejuice in India’s brooding insightfulness. But I can’t imagine Ryder reaching the heights or depths Wasikowska explores here. Goode is good, although he announces himself as suspicious from his first scene; it serves to underline the tensions of a film that manages both incredible subtlety and a crashing lack of it. As for Kidman, Evelyn’s brittle insecurity (not as young as she was, jealous of her daughter and showing zero reserve in making her intentions towards Charlie known) seems like the perfect fit. Except that there’s never a trace of sympathy for her; perhaps this lop-sidedness is an intentional consequence of India’s point of view.
Stoker is no masterpiece. Its gothic potboiler roots are far too manifest. But Park has invested it with such style and warped beauty that it nearly escapes its limitations. And for Wasikowska, hitherto a very pretty but relatively unchallenged performer, this is an incredible calling card.