Horror typically equates “coming of age” with survival – prevailing over a would-be killer – but in Stoker, director Park Chan-wook turns that struggle, and transformation, into an origin story.
The tale of a young woman whose 18th birthday unleashes a mysteriously seductive sort of hell on a grieving family, Park deconstructs nature, nurture and everything in between. A visual feast whose psychosexual boilerplate proves intriguingly complex, Stoker is a born classic – a brilliant English-language crossover effort for Park that doubles as a genre-transcending triumph.
Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) plays India Stoker, a young woman whose 18th birthday coincides with the death of her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney). Mourning the loss quietly as her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) attempts to forge the sort of connection India once shared with her father, their efforts to move on are interrupted by the arrival of Charlie (Matthew Goode), Richard’s long-absent brother. Charlie agrees to stay around to help with yard work and keep the pair company, much to the concern of the family housekeeper (Phyllis Sommerville) and an estranged aunt (Jacki Weaver), both of whom know about Charlie’s mysterious past. But he soon becomes a wedge between mother and daughter when both find themselves inextricably drawn to his mysterious demeanor, which seems to hide deadly secrets not only about the Stoker family’s past, but its possible future as well.
There’s always something to be said in an era of seeming technical utilitarianism for a film that executes its story with grace and true style, but Stoker goes beyond that – its use of color, framing, and perspective offers audiences a unique opportunity to both “be there” in the moment with each scene and keep them at arm’s length. Rather than merely capturing the action, or infiltrating the space the characters inhabit, the camera always seems to be “watching” them; handheld shots allow viewers to be spectators during key scenes, and witness character transformations firsthand. In every case, there’s a “point of view,” giving us the sense that these characters are interacting and changing, and in turn, changing our perception of them, incrementally but constantly, to create a complete portrait of them.
At the same time, Park’s camera observes – and delightfully betrays — so many traditional rules of film language that it’s obvious he isn’t making things up as he goes along. In an early scene, Charlie explains that India feels at a disadvantage to him because she’s below him, but as the film progresses, she ascends a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) staircase until she is equal to, and eventually, beyond him. We’re watching her not just grow up or evolve, but become empowered and three-dimensional as she takes control of her behavior and charge of her life. A wonderful close-up shot late in the film remains stationary as she steps into a pair of high heels that are an 18th-birthday gift, and watching her head rise partially out of frame signals that she hasn’t merely become an adult, bully fully moved beyond even our equivalent gaze of her burgeoning womanhood.
But the film’s examination of where we develop – or sharpen – the thoughts, impulses and behavior that make us who we are gives Stoker substance far beyond its glossy, elegant sheen. Wentworth Miller’s script delights in seemingly glib double entendres like “I want to know my brother’s wife,” but the film isn’t simplistic about the sexual politics of the trio, nor the effect each has on the others. Indeed, if one can avoid being distracted by the Getaway-style opening credits and instead pay attention to India’s description of her clothing – a blouse from her mother, a belt from her father, etc. – it tells you all you need to know about the deliberate ambiguity with which the young woman’s coming of age will be portrayed.
She’s not “just” the product of her parents’ uneven attention, or their individual characteristics, or more immediately, the impact of her uncle’s eccentricities, but a composite of those influences and her own essential, perhaps fundamental qualities, which are shown in full bloom by the movie’s end. Moreover, India, Charlie and Evelyn seek to capture – or recapture – a stage of youth or adulthood that they are either beyond or never were capable of: India, jealous of Evelyn’s sexual chemistry with Charlie, attempts to seduce a classmate (Alden Ehrenreich) who shows her kindness, but is afraid to follow through; Charlie aspires to the paternal – and sexual – adulthood that his late brother achieved, but can only play at it; and Evelyn envies her daughter’s youthful allure, which only evokes the early days of her marriage, and fears that her own adulthood is too “mature” to snare Charlie’s attention.
These dynamics are represented not just narratively but visually – Charlie’s toy gun mirrors Richard’s real one, for example, or when India consummates Charlie’s rescue of her by donning a nightgown virtually identical to Evelyn’s. That they’re further represented musically – particularly via “Duet,” a Philip Glass composition whose on-screen performance by Wasikowska and Goode ranks among the hottest sex-free scenes in recent memory – is a testament to the completeness of Park’s vision, which rivals Alfred Hitchcock’s work in Psycho and Stanley Kubrick’s in The Shining in terms of turning storytelling clichés into something fresh and creative. All of which makes Stoker that much more impressive: Park takes material that should go straight to late-night cable and gives it a legitimate sheen, and substance to boot.
As such, it’s tough to characterize Park’s film as horror, at least in any traditional sense, but it has an atmosphere of mystery, and of danger – and features an imperiled heroine – which at least outwardly gives it those genre bona fides. But then again, Park’s Thirst operated similarly: that film was indisputably a vampire tome, but it was also a sophisticated portrait of sexual politics, and of relationship dynamics, projected onto the backdrop of a familiar mythology. Here, India’s transition into adulthood is forged, literally and metaphorically, in blood, but the film also uses the melodrama of a homicidally-dysfuntional family to recontextualize virtually universal obstacles, discoveries, and revelations.
Ultimately, Park’s English-language debut accomplishes what most horror films fail to do these days – namely, to take well-worn conventions and breathe new life into them – which is why we’re as eager to see what happens next as we are apprehensive to watch it first unfold. In fact, it accomplishes this feat so well that Stoker earns a truly unique distinction – by not merely being a horror film that would actually benefit from being sequelized, but one which earns the right to continue its story. Let’s hope, for Park’s sake and for ours, he gets the chance.