by Matt Smith
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 and her father has died in a terrible car crash, his body burned in the wreckage. When her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears at his funeral and moves in with her and her mother, Evelyn, she becomes increasingly infatuated with him. Who is this family member she never knew existed? What secret does he hold? And what, exactly, does he want from India and her mother? These are some of the questions to be answered in Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, Stoker, a determinedly perverse work that dissects some version of the American family.
A straight-A student, quiet and unassuming, India is withdrawn and distant. Her father, we learn, used to take her hunting, and she excelled at it. He stuffed every bird she ever killed. Her mother was uncomfortable with the activity, but there are hints that her father recognized something in her that he felt the need to control. Something worrying. Late in the film, once some of the film’s mysteries are divulged, she remembers her father used to say, “Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop yourself from doing something worse.” What did he see in her?
At school, India is taunted by a group of boys, mostly with sexual remarks about either herself or, once Charlie moves in, her mother. One of them asks her if she has changed her name to stroker, “because that’s what I hear your mom’s been doing to your uncle.” That boy throws a punch at her that ends up blocked by a number 2 pencil that breaks its tip off in his fist. Another boy comes along, Whip, who tells the other guys to leave, which they do. India seems interested in him.
The layers that cover the Stoker family’s secrets are slowly peeled back. Charlie kills people. We, along with India, know this very early on. She discovers the housekeeper’s head in the ice box downstairs. He kills Aunt Gwendolyn in her hotel after she tries to discuss Charlie with Evelyn. When India is on a walk with Whip, he tries to force himself on her, and Charlie comes to the rescue, tying him up on the ground with his belt and letting India kick him.
This is followed by one of many montages in the film. India, dirty, disrobes at home and gets into the shower. She is crying. In flashback we see what happened in the woods. Whip continues to try and attack India, climbing on top of her. Charlie comes up behind him and pulls his head back with a belt. We see India in the shower, but slowly it’s revealed she’s not crying, but masturbating, looking up at the shower head. Another flashback shows us her staring into Charlie’s eyes as he pulls back Whip’s head further, snapping his neck, India underneath. Charlie is looking right back at her the whole time.
While Evelyn’s relationship with Charlie is uncomfortable enough, India’s burgeoning interest in her uncle threatens the acceptable societal norms of blood relations. India imagines them playing a complex duet on the piano, switching back and forth between registers and octaves, a sensual dance of tension and release. We learn that Charlie is obsessed with India, and has been for a long time. She finds a stack of letters from him that were never delivered, and she learns that he plans for the both of them, kindred spirits with a similar darkness inside, to run off to New York together.
The “something worse” India’s father somehow knew she was capable of is the same as that in Charlie. She, like Charlie, is a hunter. She kills, and even has a knack for it, but has never killed a human being. By the end of the film, that changes. When she raises her rifle in the film’s final sequence, it unleashes a tone poem of arterial spray and delicate flowers. India finally knows what she is and what she’s capable of, and she’s out there, maybe continuing in her uncle’s footsteps, perhaps not.
I was personally dumb struck walking out of Stoker. There is so much about the film I wish I had the time to convey without divulging absolutely everything about it. I want to discuss it in-depth with everyone I can. The film contains many secrets beyond what I have just discussed, which may or may not be too much. I have never carried any real regard for spoilers. They are simply relaying information. Whether or not that ruins a movie for you is entirely contingent upon the individual viewer. I merely bring up the information pertinent to what the film does and how it goes about doing it.
Stoker is filled with striking imagery and complex camera work, something that director Park is known for. His Korean features, especially Oldboy and Thirst, are known for their visual flair as much as their similarly themed tales of attraction and the consequences which follow. Neither of those films are easy, though I’m not quite sure either one will be as difficult for audiences to get on board with as this one. Maybe this has to do with the lack of foreign exoticism which accompanies most non-European films released theatrically in the U.S. We can explain away the weirdness as a cultural difference. I’ll be interested to see how Stoker, which was written by an American, actor Wentworth Miller, and merely directed by Park, yet is no less completely in line with his previous work stylistically or thematically, is received by popular audiences.
Stoker is the first great film of 2013, one of the best things I have seen in a long time, and an absolute recommendation. You may not like it. Fair enough. The film is as odd as the couple on which it trains its attention. But it entranced me and held me entirely in its grip.
5 out of 5 stars.