Chan-wook Park Explores Flaws in the Family with ‘Stoker’

Like the song says, it’s different for girls. Coming of age means more than acquiescing to the roles constantly reinvented for you by society. It means dealing with those dreaded “S’s” — self-esteem, sense of purpose… oh, and of course, sex. Boys get the “will be boys” excuse while the female adolescent must balance her place in biology with her own raging hormones. So when they lose a major part of their growing identity — read: their father — and must face the notion of maturing without his nurturing machismo, it’s no wonder a gal goes a bit… daft. For India Stoker, the stakes are even higher. Something else is developing inside her, something guaranteed to give her aimless mother (Nicole Kidman) and sleazy uncle (Matthew Goode) more than a few fits.

When we first meet our heroine (essayed brilliantly by Burton’s Alice, Mia Wasikowska), she is walking in a field, musing on the utter aimlessness of life. Something has happened, but we don’t know when, or to whom. We then discover that she has recently lost her dad (Dermot Mulroney) in an auto accident and, while financially set, she’s broken inside. Her mother is awash in her own inner Tennessee Williams widow work and just when it looks like things will stay sullen, in walks a heretofore unknown relative, Uncle Charlie. All charm and charisma, he claims to have the family’s best intentions at heart. But when members of the staff start disappearing, as well as a local bully who likes picking on India, all eyes turn toward the overly earnest interloper. Via a little delicate detective work and a growing infatuation, she uncovers some concerning facts. What she does with them, however, becomes Stoker‘s greatest secret.

As the first English language film from Korean auteur Park Chan-wook (The Vengeance Trilogy, I’m a Cyborg… But That’s OK), Stoker relies heavily on the director’s amazing use of imagery and ideas. Channeling Hitchcock and his Shadow of a Doubt as a jumping off point, we get numerous references to the Master of Suspense and his growing cult of copycats. Like Steven Soderbergh with this year’s Side Effects, Park plays at hiding the obvious truth via homage (you’ll see snippets of Psycho, Strangers on a Train, and even Vertigo here) while inventing a few dread mechanisms himself. The end result is a mystery where the means justify the ends, where even the most cynical viewer will stand up and take notice of where this particular filmmaker is taking us.

It’s one helluva journey. Park balances the delicate designs of the screenplay, giving everyone their time to chew up the scenery and hinder the whodunit. India is the most obvious instrument for this, but her Mom is another spun spider’s web all together. Kidman plays the fragile figure like true porcelain, almost inhuman in her halting, ghost-like limits. She’s supposed to be a woman destroyed by the death of her husband, but what you really see is a female flittering to a new man like a moth, desperate for a new companion in her current spoiled rich suburban setting. While the home has its own unique attributes (for such fancy digs it has a basement straight out of Evil Dead), it’s the idea of what this house offers that provides some easy subtext. This is apparently a place where numerous naughty things can happen and few, if anyone, will ever know.

Charlie is also a choice red herring, since his guilt, while easily established, is masked by a mysterious past that plays out like parts of a Gothic novel. We keep waiting for all the pieces to fall into place, and when they do, the answers aren’t always agreeable. Indeed, when we learn what Charlie did, why he’s back now, and what he has in store for the rest of the Stoker family, it’s hard to see how anyone could side with his situation. But that’s the beauty of this film. We aren’t meant to support Charlie, or India, or Mom. Instead, we are required to sit back and watch them interact and intertwine. Sex is suggested, never seen, while brutality and belligerence become the main motivations. Everyone here wants vengeance. Some are just willing to go further than the others.

It’s Ms. Wasikowska who offers the most engaging performance, however. She’s the perfect enigma, an excellent filter through which Park can plot out his motives and misdirection. At first, we fear for her. Then we wonder about her. Toward the end, we grow angry with her presumed positioning within this bizarre love triangle…and then there’s a twist that takes everything we’ve seen before and redirects it in a way that makes us both smile and suspect. We should have seen it coming, mind you, but thanks to the way Park takes us to this point, we feel fine with the manipulation. Indeed, one of the best element of Stoker is how it can fool us while making us glad we were duped.

As for his work here, Park just doesn’t play fair. He can find beauty in a decrepit underground space, turn lawn ornamentation into markers of death, and freeze your marrow with a single shot. As he did throughout masterworks like Oldboy and Cyborg, he loves to juxtapose the anticipated with the actual. The Stoker house looks foreboding enough, but aside from a few haunted touches, it merely mimics the Nuevo riche. India’s school is not some dark sanctuary of suppression. Instead, it’s your typical campus with all its evil full out on display. Even a last act location (left ambiguous here to avoid spoilers) looks nothing like what we imagine. In fact, you can sum up Stoker in one simple sentence: it provides a backdrop of genre expectations, only to thwart them in ways that rework the material into an unexpected edge of your seat entertainment.

About the only downside here is that, in general, there is nothing new being presented. Even the denouement in Oldboy seemed slightly obvious, given the numerous subtle nudges along the way. It could be argued that Park works best this way, finding his form when we think he’s going in one direction, and then he beats around the bush until he arrives at the spot we thought. Those travels around the hedges are what makes his movies so special. It’s the voyage throughout Stoker which makes the inevitable arrival so fascinating… and fulfilling.

RATING 7 / 10