Stoker begins by telling us exactly what it’s about and exactly what kind of film it’s going to be, both thematically and stylistically. “It’s only when we realize who we are do we become adults,” India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) whispers over the opening credits sequence filled with curious close-ups, unsettling compositions, and jagged edits.
Stoker is South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first foray into American, and for that matter English-Language, cinema. He is one of two Korean filmmakers being poached by Hollywood, the other being Bong Joon-ho, who directed the upcoming Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton and also being produced by Chan-wook.
Stoker tells the story of India Stoker, an enigmatic teenager whose father, Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) passes away in a fatal car accident on her 18th birthday. On the day of his funeral, India’s mother, Evelyn Stoker, played with harrowing intensity in a chilling performance by Nicole Kidman, introduces India to her paternal uncle, Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode). She informs India that her Uncle Charlie will be moving in with them for… moral support. I guess. Both India and Evelyn can’t help but be infatuated by their strikingly handsome Uncle Charlie and an incestuous love triangle ensues. But Evelyn is more curious than she is moon-struck by Charlie. She never even knew her father had a brother until now.
The film is littered with literary and cinematic references. Writer Wentworth Miller, who viewers may know as inmate Michael Scofield from former hit FOX television series Prison Break, was clearly influenced by Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. The set-up of the film is also nearly identical to Hitchock’s Shadow of a Doubt and even directly borrows Charlie’s name from the film.
Chan-wook, a student of philosophy in his college days, poses a thought-provoking nature vs. nurture question at the start of the film – Do we have a choice when it comes to deciding the people we grow up to be? It’s a resounding question that’s been tackled by almost every major philosopher as well as many filmmakers and novelists, alike. I was reminded of the popular television series, Dexter, which deals with a serial killer struggling to contain his murderous instincts. In Stoker, we are told India’s father used to take her out on hunting trips- not because he enjoyed hunting, but because it was the “lesser of two evils.”
It’s certainly an intriguing question worthy of cinematic exploration, but this tantalizing premise was effectively squandered by a lackluster script and style-over-substance direction. The camerawork, editing, and sound design elements were fittingly jarring in accordance with the world these characters occupy. Cinematographer and frequent Chan-wook collaborator, Chung-hoon Chung, delivers with stunning compositions and aptly cold lighting. The editing was purposely jumpy and far from seamless. When listening to the soundscape, it was often difficult to distinguish between sounds imagined and those justified by on-screen actions.
But despite these effective visual and sonic elements, I simply could not relate to any of the characters. I’m sure they weren’t “supposed to be” imitations of real life, which is fine and even common in many successful films- but these characters were stale and lifeless. They were both written and directed one-dimensionally and I couldn’t help but feel that their callous exteriors were emotionally impenetrable. I was never able to make enough of an emotional investment to care about India’s faith- even with her shocking finale. Evelyn’s character felt static throughout the film and she didn’t seem to have gone through any significant transformation. She was simply the “terrible mother” archetype from the start and we aren’t given much backstory to justify that. I remember the characters in Chan-wook’s international hit, Old Boy, being far more dynamic and relatable and the tragic twist ending was all the more devastating because of it. It may or may not be important to note the fact that Chan-wook directed the actors through the help of a translator due to his poor English skills.
Despite my reservations regarding Stoker, I sincerely hope this is not Park Chan-wook’s last venture into Hollywood cinema. I think given a better-developed script, he can direct something far more compelling. Here’s hoping Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer will be a more thrilling ride.