In my previous post I mentioned how even the time of day can influence how indulgent a moviegoer might feel toward a movie. As an example, I caught Chun-wook Park’s Stoker on an unexpectedly free evening. A sense of found time might explain why I got a kick out of the movie, which glides along on a darkly amusing sense of novelty for much of its 98 minutes. Until, alas, it doesn’t.
The main selling point of Stoker is Mia Wasikowska’s performance as 18-year-old India Stoker, a sullen, isolated high school senior in an unnamed Southern town who has some very curious thoughts in her head. With her long black tresses, a complexion that appears never to have seen daylight and a wardrobe that suggests she went to Goth-girl finishing school, India is like a wonderful live-action Edward Gorey figure. And she’s the normal one among the movie’s three leads.
Morbidity hangs over the Stoker household like Spanish moss from the opening moments: India finds out that her dad Richard (Dermot Mulroney, seen in flashbacks), her only real friend, has died in a car accident. The news sends her aging Southern belle of a mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), into shock, while India just retreats deeper into herself.
At the funeral, India spots a mysterious stranger across the cemetery, and hears — or thinks she hears — him calling out to her. The mystery man turns up at the wake, introduced as Charles Stoker (Matthew Goode), Richard’s dapper, dashing younger brother. India never even knew she had an uncle; Charles explains his absence over the past 18 years in passing, with something about gallivanting around Europe on art-historical or archeological expeditions. Evelyn is too busy fussing over Charles to trouble herself with the particulars.
India, however, is creeped out by the new arrival, and how could she not be? Charles lounges around the Stoker house looking like an evil J. Crew model. With his glassy eyes and insinuating smirk, there’s never any doubt that he’s a sociopath.
You might say there’s not even a Shadow of a Doubt — Wentworth Miller’s Stoker script is essentially a riff on that 1943 Hitchcock movie, where Joseph Cotton played another “Uncle Charlie,” come to stay in another small town. At first he’s an idol to his adoring 17-year-old niece (Teresa Wright), but the suspense of Hitchcock’s film lies in how the girl starts to have doubts about this long-lost relative that her family — and practically the whole town — adores. Glimmers of the sinister keep flaring up in Uncle Charlie, and ultimately Thornton Wilder’s script reveals him to be a monster of homicidal misogyny.
Thus a viewer who knows little about Stoker might assume he can guess the slow-burn plot. India’s creepy and enigmatic uncle Charles keeps worming his way deeper into the family’s good graces — and her mother’s arms — while a series of mysterious disappearances hits the town. The already troubled India has no one to go to with her suspicions. But the big twist in Miller’s screenplay is that India finds herself increasingly attracted to Charles, and even becomes complicit in his bloody misdeeds. Or does she? For a while, the movie enjoys flirting with ambiguity.
India’s mother is too smitten with Charles, and perhaps too pickled in alcohol, to let herself notice anything amiss. In certain light Nicole Kidman’s face now has an almost animatronic quality, which elsewhere might impede an expressive performance but which actually makes her a good fit for needy Evelyn. Desperate for male attention, Evelyn is like a onetime beauty queen with no idea how to be middle aged. There’s a glimpse of a Tennessee Williams kind of borderline-hysteria in Kidman’s performance; with the one-two of Evelyn and her role in last fall’s The Paperboy, a kind of brittle camp is fast becoming her specialty. Her stylized turns in the two movies all but beg to become material for a drag-queen revue in the not too distant future.
For a while Stoker works as a mood piece, a languid but poisonous dream. India tries to figure out the mystery of her uncle Charles, while the viewer contemplates the more intriguing puzzle of India herself. Director Chan-wook Park and his DP Chung-hoon Chung give the proceedings the atmosphere of a reverie that’s tinged with creepiness. India could be a dreamer who lies at the mercy of her own dream. Park continually keeps the spectator off guard by transitioning in and out of scenes with unusual camera setups and unpredictable beats in the editing. (And if you need a novel angle on a girl lying on her bed, Park is your man.) Even with the quick succession of tableaux, the mood is hushed and unhurried.
Park situates the story in an abstract Southern milieu: all of the appliances in the Stoker household appear to be at least 35 years old, and they still have a phone that hangs on the wall. Everyone’s clothes are similarly, vaguely backdated, or at least not tied to any specific era. You might assume Park is staging a discreet period piece here, until a cell phone belatedly turns up in the movie.
Park’s careful fudging of when this story is set raises the question, would it be possible to create a Southern Gothic atmosphere in a house full of laptops and smartphones, or would those overly bright screens automatically dispel the ambiance? They would certainly handicap any dramatic tension. The absence of computers on screen here initially keeps a viewer from asking why no one bothers to Google “Charles Stoker.” (Answer: Because if they did, there’d be no movie.)
Stoker starts sinking into a swamp of implausibility and unresolved questions as the bodies start to pile up. The film gradually relocates from an unnamed Southern town to a Never-Never Land, far removed from real-world consequences or questions of motivation. Perhaps the filmmakers intended their narrative as a parable or a dark fairy tale. But “parable” and “fable” are often the last refuge of scoundrels whose screenplays don’t add up, and Hitchcock references are an even more frequent alibi of people with little new or memorable to say.
Seriously, spoiler alert.
This eminently watchable movie becomes disappointing as it becomes more overtly sub-Hitchcockian, with flashbacks to uncle Charles’ days as a bad seed. Then a purely gratuitous last-minute murder — maybe Park wanted to get some more artful splatter in — tips the picture into silliness. The Southern Gothic we thought we were watching turns out to be more like the origin issue of a female assassin. Our parting sight of India, remorseless and inscrutable behind her shades, is not unamusing, but an hour earlier I would’ve sworn I was watching a more poetic, haunting movie.