If you’re reluctant to watch movies that might give you nightmares, you should notice the rating for this film before you set out to see it. Despite some wildly positive critical reactions to this film, especially locally, I’m not recommending it. Stoker is a film that I am glad I saw for professional reasons – it has a lot of “artistic” chops – but personally, I could have gone my whole life without seeing it. Only if you’re a true “art film” lover do I suggest you see it.
The preview, like many previews these days, gives the wrong impression of the movie. While it is a horrific story, it’s not a horror film, not full of things that go bump in the night so to speak, though there are plenty of rocky turns here.
Shot in Nashville, Tennessee, in what looks like a southern mansion, Stoker, is lovely to look at. Essentially this is a director’s show-off piece. Chan-wook Park, born in South Korea, is known mostly for his vengeance trilogy, which included a film entitled Old Boy. Few Americans saw it, but enough did, it seems, to get him a deal to director this film, starring high-powered Nicole Kidman. You’ll be hearing a lot from Mr. Park in time, because he has a distinct auteur style, an exquisite sense of timing, a fondness for referencing his symbols throughout the film and a deeply ingrained love for the macabre. Combined with an excellent script by first-time writer Wentworth Miller (an actor on the Prison Break TV series), Stoker comes off as a well-made film.
The question became for me, and my two companions who saw the film with me—so what? A well-made film, even one that is additionally well-acted, that happens to be about people you don’t care a whit about becomes, in essence, a film you don’t care about. That is Stoker’s main problem. Everyone in it is an awful human being.
India Stoker (Aussie-born Mia Wasikowska in a terrific performance) is a troubled teenager who becomes more troubled after the sudden bizarre auto accident that killed her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney). In flashbacks we see the unique bonding father and daughter have made – India loves to shoot birds and she is so good at it that her father has each of her kills stuffed and the birds decorate their mansion. At some time her father has told India, “Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.” A phrase to remember because it is indeed a theme of the film.
India and her beautiful mother Evelyn Stoker (another brilliant performance by Nicole Kidman, also Aussie-born) don’t get along. Evelyn tries, but India is so aloof and strange—and violent as we will see when she’s at school—that even a mother who wasn’t half-drunk most of the time and emotionally fragile would have problems with such a child. For me, I got one look at India in the film and wanted to fun away screaming. This is one of those kids who is destined to do murderous things some day.
After her father’s funeral, Dad’s brother, Uncle Charles (a strange but compelling Matthew Goode), arrives to stay at the house. Obviously, the shifty-eyed flatterer is up to no good, but Evelyn, starved for affection from her long, love-less marriage to India’s father, is easy prey. Why did no one ever hear of this brother? And why is a family relative, Mrs. McGarrick (a marvelous Phyllis Somerville) so afraid to learn of his visit?
The fascinating, repulsive back story is revealed in bits and pieces, while the contemporary tale speeds on. Inevitably Uncle Charles tries to share his affection with India, and she is torn between hatred for him and the pull of her overpowering adolescent libido—which Mia Wasikowska makes so terrifying, you’re going to think twice about even saying hello to any teenage girls you know.
The story continues, with dramatic detours, awful punctuation points, and a final clarification of the relationship between India’s father and the uncle that comes right out of 19th century gothic novels. The story is over the top, but it works, thanks to the meticulous artistic style of the director and the elegant performances of everyone.
I was curious throughout the whole film about where the story was going to go and what the back stories of everyone was—but while I was curious, oddly enough, I was also bored because the film was entirely a cerebral exercise. I had no affection for any one of the characters. When you’re watching a tale of menace, you need someone to root for or else it just becomes, as Stoker did, an example of style over substance.