March 1, 2013 (US Limited)
Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson (contributing writer)
Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker
Nicole Kidman as Evelyn Stoker
Matthew Goode as Charles Stoker
Dermot Mulroney as Richard Stoker
Phyllis Somerville as Mrs. McGarrick
By James “Crypticpsych” Lasome – Staff Writer
Stoker, the first English-language film from the acclaimed director of Oldboy, tells the story of dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship thrown into chaos by the arrival of a forgotten uncle with dark intentions and even darker secrets.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself in mourning on her birthday. Her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), has passed away in a car accident leaving her alone with her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). On the day of his funeral, however, India begins hearing a voice calling to her. As she looks around her for its source, she sees a figure in the distance. At the wake, the figure is revealed to be Charles (Matthew Goode), Richard’s forgotten globe-trotting brother. Charles takes an immediate, intense liking to Evelyn and India much to the dismay of other family members. He moves in with the two women, presenting himself as endlessly charming and attracting the romantic attention of the new widow. Unexpectedly, though, Charles seems to be focusing most of his attention, in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle, on India. India, initially just as resistant of his charms as she was melancholic toward Evelyn, soon finds herself drawn to the mysterious relative. The darker aspects of his past and personality, however, threaten to consume and forever change both her and the rest of the family.
Stoker (not to be confused with the author of Dracula) is a strange story of family dysfunction filtered through the distinct visual style of Chan-Wook Park, director of revenge film extraordinaireOldboy. To my great surprise, it’s also written by about the last person one would expect, actor Wentworth Miller (best known for his work on the series “Prison Break” and as Chris Redfield inResident Evil: Afterlife). The end result is a deeply flawed-yet-interesting story filled with pretentious dialogue… that is made about twice as good by Park’s interesting use of visuals, sound design, and transitions.
First thing’s first, though, let’s talk about the uncomfortable taboo that is the centerpiece of this movie: the idea of a blood-related uncle seemingly seducing both his brother’s wife, and, more disturbingly, his own niece. Is the audience supposed to approve of this? Supposed to want to see India falling for Charles or be okay when she fantasizes about him to almost orgasmic levels while playing the piano? Supposed to buy Evelyn pretty much immediately hopping right into her husband’s brother’s arms after his death (who she barely even knew anything about!)? I won’t deny that I enjoyed the film, but I also found myself exasperated by the movie throughout almost its entire runtime, cringing at how nonchalantly it seems to take a concept that bothers a lot of people! Part of the reason the movie is watchable or entertaining at ALL is that Wasikowska and Goode are good in their roles and have a dark, very creepy chemistry (Kidman, not so much)… but it’s still almost impossible to avoid that they are playing an uncle and a niece who are basically obsessed with each other! Anyone with any qualms about being able to handle a movie based in a relationship like that should go into Stoker well-aware that they might have serious problems with the movie.
However, movies can overcome taboo subject matter and still be great. Stoker, on the other hand, is decent overall but is kept back from rising above its most controversial plot point by other writing flaws. For one, the script has tons of overblown, pretentious segments (India’s opening monologue and Evelyn’s monologue on having children late in the film are both particularly eye-rolling). Far worse, though, is that the script basically relies on characters either being mind-bendingly stupid or stunningly unlikable. In the first category, there’s Evelyn who apparently is blind to a billion and one signs that there’s something wrong with Charles… but only until the movie just suddenly decides to have her confront him out-of-nowhere in the climax with a slew of “little things”. India also finds herself in this category a bit after getting an old key for her birthday (instead of the shoes she usually gets). After spending a good portion of the movie asking what it unlocks, it ends up being something so obvious that it’d likely be one of the FIRST PLACES YOU’D CHECK. Then there’s the slew of side characters that seem to know things about Charles and, knowing all they apparently do about him, are still dumb enough to confront him in some way shape or form at their own peril. As for the unlikable half, there’s only one, but it’s a doozy: a character that saves India from sex-obsessed, annoying bullies. Given the pains taken to imply the character is different from the violent, pig-headed morons he defends her against, it’s more than a little infuriating for the character to end up actually being worse than them in many ways and falling into the trope I keep seeing lately that I officially am now calling “Nice Guy in Name Only”.
All of this being said, though, there is one great thing about Stoker that makes it worth seeing at least once for those who can handle its strange subject matter: the surreal visuals and sound design. Park Chan-Wook may have been working from a flawed script, but he still produced something beautifully bizarre out of it. While many interesting choices of shots and angles show this as well as some interesting editing choices, the clearest examples come from the film’s transitions. At one point, the characters are discussing India’s days of going bird hunting with her father and the film cuts from the egg underneath one of her taxidermied kills…to an eye, seamlessly. Later, in possibly the most beautiful transition in the film, India brushes Evelyn’s hair and talks about going hunting with her father. In response, there’s a breathtaking transition from Evelyn’s hair into the tall grasses where India and her dad would lie in wait for their targets.
As for the sound design, two examples jump out. In one, India goes from practicing her piano to hunting through Charles’ belongings while he’s out with Evelyn…all done to the steady beat of the metronome she left running while she began her investigation. In the other (my personal favorite), India is helping make devilled eggs and cracks an egg on the table by first denting the shell and then rolling the egg around on the table, creating a deeply unsettling and loud extended crunching sound as the shell fragments under the pressure. In many ways, while the story is only flawed-but-passable in Stoker, instances like these in the soundscape, composition of scenes, and atmosphere are where the movie becomes worth the price of admission.
Stoker is both a deeply flawed and deeply creepy glimpse into the most dysfunctional of families. Alone, the significant deficiencies of its script and story would doom the film to mediocrity. Instead, however, the good performances of its two leads and pure surreal artistic beauty of its editing, transitions, and sound design save the final product and make it far more interesting and engaging than it otherwise would be.