Written by Wentworth Miller
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Park Chan-wook’s Stoker is an amazing film that is only a few steps shy of perfection. But it is those final steps that make up the bulk of my complaints, forever sealing Stoker away from classics territory. The story of a teenage girl’s journey to womanhood just as a mysterious uncle enters her life plays on much of the angst we all experience as youth. It also plays on a lot of Hitchcock tropes, right up to having the mysterious uncle that the niece finds the murderous truth about be named Charlie. Holy Shadow of a Doubt, Batman!
My biggest beef seems like a slight thing, but Stoker involves what is essentially the sexual awakening of the India Stoker character, but both the writer and director are men. This isn’t a huge thing by itself, but it reveals itself in a million tiny tiny things that just add up to put Stoker a bit off from masterpiece status in my eyes. Mia Wasikowska obviously had some input on her character and how she acted, but everything is based on the templates laid down by Park and Miller. Perhaps I’ll soften a bit on this after a few years, Stoker being very worthy of revisits.
Park Chan-wook’s films have gained him a cult following throughout the world: Joint Security Area, Thirst, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, and The Vengeance Trilogy. Stoker is his English-language film debut, one of three cult Korean directors who had English language films debuts in 2013 – Kim Jee-won with The Last Stand and Bong Joon-ho with Snowpiercer are the others. Park Chan-wook took the great tradition of Korean film transitions with him. The scene where the hair turns into the field of grass is one of the best shots ever in film. Park succeeds in providing excellent tension building thanks to some masterful editing, and continues to ratchet up the drama as the story gets more disturbing. Screenwriter Wentworth Miller was largely known for acting until this point, starring in the Prison Break series on Fox. His script for Stoker wound up on the Black List, which lead to its eventual development. It all results in a terrific thriller.
The narration by India Stoker is done as a whisper, giving a more intimate feel, and the aura of us hearing a family secret. Secrets weave the web of the world of Stoker, the Stoker family having their own skeletons in the closet
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a teenage outcast whose only real relationship was with her father, who has just suddenly died in an accident at the beginning of the film. Not having a real relationship with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), the lives of the two women are thrown a curve when the previously unmentioned brother of their departed husband/father arrives in the form of Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode). It’s obvious that some sort of secret is afoot, but the few who know the details are keeping things tight lipped (and soon start disappearing!) Evelyn is awash with grief, and Charlie represents a look back at the younger version of her husband that she was madly in love with, causing her to ignore obvious warning signs. India sees all, and Uncle Charlie pays special attention to her, always finding a way to worm into whatever she’s doing. He’s a dark shadow, waiting. And soon dark things blossom.
Stoker is suspenseful, building up slowly as pieces are revealed bit by bit. By the time the film confirms what we’ve long suspected about Uncle Charlie, it’s far past worrying about what he does and moves towards what his interest in India is. No one who knows what Charles did says anything. They hold back due to fear or a misplaced sense of loyalty, to their own peril.
The reveal of everything Charlie has been saying about his life vs. the truth still manages to become shocking despite his previously revealed bloodlust, just because it is so far more sick and twisted. Charlie rewrites reality to make him the one who is special. He’s never gotten over the jealousy he had as a child, and still uses his innocent looks to manipulate others to do what he wants. He is so used to manipulating others that when his efforts hit walls like they do with India and his brother Richard, Charlie goes off script. That means doom for his brother, but with India, Charlie is convinced that he will win, that he will convince her over. So much so that he doesn’t even realized what she is planning, and he becomes more filled with bloodlust. To his peril.
India’s father Richard had suspicions as the what would happen, and his time spent alone with India hunting turns out to be far more important than just family bonding time that annoyed Evelyn. Richard taught India how to kill, and more importantly, how to lie in wait for the right moment to strike. He also taught her that sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse. Richard was both tempering his daughter to control the urges that would soon flood her system, but also training her to be the apex predator that waits for just the right moment to strike. By the end, when India has fully embraced what she is, freed herself from her family connections, her final act is eliminating the one thing that can take away her new found sense of power and strength. The nature documentary at the hotel that shows a baby bird killing his fellow baby bird, both foreshadows Charlie’s secret, and also the predatory nature of the Stoker family.
India’s growth into a woman is a constant theme throughout Stoker. Each year, India would receive a box with a pair of shoes in it, and the camera pans over each pair from the years at the size gets bigger. As India believes these shoes are from her father, she is always wearing a pair. The opening (and closing) shot of blood squirting onto flowers is a direct reference to her period and the ascent of womanhood. For at this point, India has matured, has become what she has been raised to be.
Stoker revolves around the murder of Whip by Charlie. It becomes the sexual awakening for India, and from that she finds the blueprints for her own freedom. The twist that seemingly comes out of the blue is that India isn’t crying in the shower, that she’s in the midst of pleasuring herself, becoming turned on by the act of killing. The Stoker family legacy is more dark then they’d care to admit in public. Uncle Charlie is not the first family member to have urges. While killing excites both Charlie and India, Charlie does it to further his own goals to make himself the center of attention of who he wants affection from. India’s take on the violence seems more of a necessary thing for her freedom. After her shower, India wears the nightgown that her mother bought for her. It’s the first time she has done so, the first time India has embraced something womanly from her mother (though India usually wears some sort of skirt, she is constantly in the masculine shoes from her father.) Later her mother sees India as a threat, as someone replacing her, a younger model, and she spews out some of the vilest venom imaginable at her daughter.
India at first seems to resent Charlie staying at their home. She rejects his constant attempts to wedge his way into her life, his carefully choreographed acts of kindness. While her mother sees Charlie as a substitute husband, a window into her happier past and a way to feel love again after suffering a great loss, India is suspicious and cautious. Just the sheer amount of Uncle Charlie around wears her down. Everything Charlie does, he is focused on India. He uses his skills at acting and manipulation to paint a bigger picture, but he always has an eye on what India is doing, where she is going. And he shows up just in time to see her when she’s in trouble, even to save her. Despite both being present in a scene that causes arousal in India, their scene that is the closest to being erotic between them is a piano playing scene that becomes a duet, as the two play faster and furiouser, Charlies positioning himself to hit keys on both sides of India. Their breathing becomes erratic.
Uncle Charlie is revealed to be the one who gifted her the shoes all these years, and her final set of shoes for her 18th birthday isn’t the usual flat men’s shoes, but a pair of high heels that he then puts on her. It’s a signal, a signal that she’s now a woman, and a signal that he intends her to be with him. The letters that India finds from Charlie seem wonderful until you realize they’re scary. The youthful attraction to things that speak of stuff like soul mates/true love, that can only be unlearned by heartbreaking reality that comes with growing older. It’s a sign of maturity, and India violently rejects Charlie’s proposal to run off to New York together.
India narrates in the opening of the film:
My ears hear what others cannot hear; small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me. These senses are the fruits of a lifetime of longing, longing to be rescued, to be completed. Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I’m not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father’s belt tied around my mother’s blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free, and to become adult is to become free.
India once wanted to be rescued, wanted a handsome prince to come by and take her away. Because that’s what she thought she wanted and thought that was how things worked. But reality steps in. She realizes she can’t escape her family, because she is her family. She also realizes that the only one who can save her is herself. So she does.
Rated 9/10 (pencil time, shoes in a box, eggs again, ice cream, decoration, food that’s never eaten, see what’s on the inside, dirty shoes, Uncle Charlie is the mother from How I Met Your Mother!)
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