The test is not whether Chan-wook Park can create compelling horror, drama and suspense, or examine pertinent issues. He’s done all of that consistently. With Park’s latest film, Stoker – his first English-language feature – the test is whether his distinct film language can transcend the boundaries of regional specificity. And he’s passed it, with flying colors.
The premise: India (Mia Wasikowska) and Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), mother and daughter of the titular Stoker family, grieve in vastly different ways in the wake of father/husband Richard’s (Dermot Mulroney) untimely death; a discord that’s foregrounded by the presence of India’s newly arrived Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). On the Stoker compound, India’s existence prior to her father’s death is insular and irregular, but maintains an air of innocence nonetheless. But post-Richard, Charlie’s sudden entry into the estate (embraced more than warmly by Evelyn, met with skepticism by India) ushers in insidious connotations about the Stoker family’s legacy.
That Stoker is intentionally enshrouded in ambiguity lends itself to the one-two punch of Director Park’s expressive stylization and Goode’s unrelenting portrayal of Charlie on which the film firmly rests. Working from the straightforward simplicity of first-time scripter Wentworth (Prison Break) Miller’s written treatment, Park injects his knack for visual metaphors prevalent in such works as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance to communicate India’s coming-of-age tale in a setting virtually devoid of time and space. Eggs on the verge of cracking or hatching; colorful, childish buckets of ice cream juxtaposed with frozen corpses; uncomfortably long drinks of red wine – all of these flourishes and more are employed by Park to facilitate an environment that vacillates between whimsy and sinister morbidity.
As Charlie, Goode encroaches on India and Evelyn’s personal territory in a manner so unnerving, it might be likened to home invasion, if not for the blood-ties shared by the three. Almost instantaneously, Charlie takes hold of Evelyn’s roving eye with his sexual and paternal enticement. When Charlie claims Richard’s old belt as his own, and obscures his mysterious, piercing gaze behind Richard’s old sunglasses, he fills the void of Stoker masculine protector, for better or worse.
Goode’s incendiary performance is a thrill to watch. Just when India knows instinctively she’s on to his ulterior motives, Charlie pokes and prods enough to intimidate, while still bearing a sense of genuine affection – even, dare I say, love – for his adolescent niece. Goode’s ability to convey the complex ripple effect of dysfunction that we learn has beset the Stoker family long before India’s pubescence allows for a dynamic that’s equal parts psychosexual and horrific.
Though considerably perverse in its sexual undertones, Stoker doesn’t necessarily tout any “sexual politics.” Park is far more interested in the idiosyncrasies of his characters here than in making sweeping cultural statements on gender (and the film’s Gothic fairy tale vibe benefits all the more from it). While Stoker deftly fuses sex and violence to underscore its narrative ideas, Park transcends the exploitation or shock value inherent in genre conventions to flesh out India as a young woman as grounded in reality as she is an embodiment of her own graphic novel-esque mythos.
The plague of class division that fuels much of the extreme violence of Park’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is subtly at play here; though it’s short of making any overt commentary, Stoker finds India disillusioned by the excessive wealth and privilege she and her family share that has effectively barred her in from the rest of the outside world. Accentuating the Stokers’ reclusiveness is composer Clint Mansell’s (of Requiem for a Dream, Moon and Black Swan fame) haunting score, which grows and spreads throughout the film’s atmosphere, complimenting the lush greens and deep browns of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s woodsy palette.
And, being a Chan-wook Park film, Stoker does not hold back as far as its punctuated bursts of splatter are concerned. What’s more, splatter for splatter’s sake is unheard of from the writer-director whose 2009 vampire opus Thirst redefined what it means to make a movie “about blood.” Park’s latest is no exception; like Thirst, Stoker’s blood is shed due to the strains of familial ties. (Hardly coincidental is the film’s referential title, which borrows from the name of Dracula scribe Bram Stoker to evoke a darkness that runs, literally, blood-deep).
The framework of Miller’s story leaves loose ends aplenty, and there is much room in Stoker to speculate as to whether the motivations of these people hold enough meaning to make sense of. This is part of the fun. Is India a dignified heroine, or a corrupted degenerate? Is Evelyn an emotionally detached sex-fiend, or a damaged woman struggling to maintain her maternal grip? Can these women be both? And if they are, what does that make Charlie? Ask yourself these questions when Stoker’s through, and you’ll probably justify a second viewing. Horror fans ought to love it. Art house fans ought to seek it out. Mainstream audiences ought to embrace it.
– By Max Weinstein
Look for more coverage of Stoker, featuring an interview with director Chan-wook Park, in Diabolique #15, on stands in March.