Film Review – Stoker
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, young Charlie Newton is longing for something to happen and shake up her boring existence. That something turns out to be a visit from her Uncle Charlie—a man we learn is wanted by the police for murdering wealthy widows and absconding with their money. Charlie is enamored of her uncle, and cannot believe he is capable of such crimes. But when given what seems to be incontrovertible evidence, she sees Uncle Charlie for the psychopath he is and has to decide what she’s going to do about it. Up until this point, she has assumed that she and Uncle Charlie have much more in common than just a name; but when she looks into his eyes, she sees nothing of her own moral self.
In the new Park Chan-Wook film Stoker, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has suffered the horrible loss of her beloved father in a car accident. At the funeral, she meets her own Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who has been traveling the world and who comes home to mourn his loss. India’s mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) is drawn to her husband’s younger brother, and invites him to stay for a while. Evie’s existence appears rather formless and empty, and the arrival of a handsome young man seems like the perfect distraction. India is a singularly odd young woman, and is unsure at first how to respond to this invasion into her house. She does not like to be touched by anyone, and has had no friends growing up except for her father, with whom she would frequently go on hunting trips. The addition to an uncle into her small world is confusing to her on many levels.
At first, Uncle Charlie seems as if he is only in town to visit his childhood home and flirt with Evie, but not all with him is as it seems. He also has a strong interest in India, and plays her and her mother against each other. Instead of rejecting his attentions, India is drawn in like a moth to a flame. The more obvious it becomes that Uncle Charlie is dangerous, the more interested in him she gets. When she looks into his eyes, she does not see an unknowable stranger; she sees something very, very familiar.
The director of photography on this film, Chung Chung-Hoon, has worked with Park before, and man, do these two understand that film is an art—this is beautifully shot. I don’t need a movie to be artfully filmed to like it, or even love it, but when someone takes the time to think about composition and form as well as story, then the chances of me responding emotionally are increased. From the opening credits onward, the photography sets a dreamy tone that pervades the whole movie. It’s a dark fantasy, where every detail works together to reinforce the otherness of India’s world, especially the actors. Mia Wasikowska is perfect as the inscrutable India; she watches everything around her, but it is not until she acts that her thoughts and motivations become clear.
There are problems with the characters of Uncle Charlie and Evie, but they are in no way the fault of the actors. Evie is maybe a little too opaque, and it never becomes clear who she is as a character. Nicole Kidman is a really interesting actor to me; she represents all of the things I hate about Hollywood’s refusal to let women age, and yet, as much Botox as it appears she uses, she is not afraid to play roles that make her look ugly inside. She does a good job here with what she has, but I never felt I understood what was going on with Evie. Matthew Goode is both charming and menacing as Charlie, but the scene in which his true character is revealed is weak, and takes something away from the menacing tone of the movie; he appears childish instead of scary. And for the most part, this movie is all about the menacing undertones, so when it falters, it’s jarring.
It’s a really good film, though, and plays as an alternate version of Shadow of a Doubt. But I will tell you what the earlier film has that this one does not: suspense. If you listen to what India says in the opening scene, then you will be able to unspool the entire thing almost before it begins. Portents are everywhere, and as new characters are introduced, what lays in wait for them is hardly a surprise. Does it matter? Maybe not. It’s a legitimate choice by the director, but as much as I liked this movie, I would have liked it more if it had been less obvious about where it was going. But seriously, it’s a small quibble. This film is stylish, smart, and intriguing.
Final Grade: B+