Throughout Stoker, moment after moment, viewers watch light flicker across a character’s eyes. Depending on the character, the irises of these eyes are often a hazy, unnatural color—we learn quickly that these people enjoy a degree of difference from the rest of the population. But implicit in each flicker is also the request that we pay attention. Heightened senses are a motif in Stoker, something India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) makes explicit during her introductory narration. India can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear in abundance, a gift director Park Chan-wook extends to his audience for a couple of hours. His film is perverse and generous.
A girl in all white, her clothes caked with dirt, shudders in the middle of an all-white tile bathroom. Red shavings crinkle off of a No. 2 pencil as it turns inside a sharpener. Wind blows through the grass, a spider creeps down a stocking…Scenes in Stoker frequently play as though Park is working to approximate a full sensory experience with only the tools of sight and sound.
Wentworth Miller’s screenplay sets up a game of family intrigue, which gets more or less subsumed by Park’s vision—the lush set design and the loping camerawork are, as much as anything else, the content of the film. Here, though, is its premise: after India’s father dies, leaving her alone with her harried mother (Nicole Kidman), her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to visit for the first time after years abroad. Charlie’s intentions are suspect, and he seems at different times to have designs on either India’s mother or India herself.
Goode has always been too lithe to be a heavy, too pretty a man to fill the roles that go to Steve Buscemi and Paul Giamatti. His roles before Stoker include a one-dimensional cad in Cemetery Junction and the scheming super genius of Watchmen, where he was burdened with a serial villain’s German lilt. He was arguably most effective in Tom Ford’s A Single Man, where he was called to be an idealized figure in Colin Firth’s memory. Firth, ironically, was cast as Stoker’s Uncle Charlie before leaving the project, and despite Firth’s more impressive filmography, I can’t imagine him playing the role as well as Goode. Charlie is the first part that utilizes all of Goode’s assets as an actor, from the uncanny symmetry of his face to his capacity for serpentine menace.
From the name Uncle Charlie alone, Stoker’s debt to Hitchcock is clear. But Park and Miller’s characters exist in a more heightened reality than that of Hitch’s films. Mia Wasikowska’s India recalls Wednesday Adams as much as anything else. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Wasikowska can suggest the well of feeling underneath a mask of sullenness rather than treating sullenness as an end in itself. She can also apparently do amazing things with her eyes—midway through Stoker, she chugs a glass of red wine, and the middle third of her face narrates her sudden sensory overload.
And what of Nicole Kidman? Some viewers might be compelled to wonder if there’s something cruel about her casting here, for the same reason some writers suggested the casting of Winona Ryder in Black Swan was cruel. The film takes advantage of Kidman’s presence as an actor at the upper edge of the age range from which Hollywood plucks its female leads. Her Evelyn Stoker is more self-aware than Charlotte Haze, (only slightly) more self-possessed than Norma Desmond; she’s pristinely featured but desperate, with chemical-orange hair framing her pale, conspicuously wrinkle-free skin.
I would not be lingering on Kidman’s looks here—the previous paragraph bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain leering, gender-biased strain of film writing; understood—were appearances throughout the film not so meticulously arranged. Charitable readings of Stoker might consider Kidman’s character as a burlesque of how Hollywood views women over the age of 40.
Park Chan-wook reportedly directed Kidman and his other actors through a translator. Stoker is Park’s first English-language film after works like the dysfunctional vampire romance Thirst and the revenge classic Oldboy, but the film of recent vintage it most resembles might be Drive, by fellow non-native-English-speaker Nicholas Winding Refn. Both films have a noncommittal relationship with genre and luxuriate in texture, even temperature. And both films also examine patterns of human violence—the arc from repression to eruption.
Stoker also has the misfortune of sharing one of its most arresting images—specks of blood upon a field of flowers—with Django Unchained and coming out a few months after Tarantino’s film. But unlike Django, Stoker has a curious ambivalence about violence, despite the sheer amount of it in the film. Like Winding Refn, Park approaches violent acts through the lens of the grotesque—murder in his film is too messy and too compromising a business to be mistaken for simple self-actualization, even if by the hand of Stoker’s lead, India. Although India’s chocolate-brown hair tells that she’s no Hitchcock blonde, she begins the film in probable danger and ends it as something like a holy terror.
Tiffany Taylor, who has blogged about Stoker for Bitch, has accused the film of veering too close to convention at times, as with scenes of India attending her local high school (stock bullies, a less distinctive palette). Taylor’s take on these scenes does not fully account for the moment in which India drives a pencil through a boy’s hand—this being a sudden graphic maiming, it fits firmly within Park’s weirdo oeuvre—but the film’s third-act reveal does land with the thud of the overfamiliar. (The solution to the riddle of Uncle Charlie could have been borrowed from an episode of SVU.) Thankfully, the film veers back toward the bizarre before it concludes. With a minute or so of runtime left, audible gasps filled the theater during my screening. We were immersed by that time, and our senses had been shaken.