Stoker: psychological thriller let down by stereotyped characters and poor scripting

Park Chanwook, “Stoker” (2013)

Appropriately Chanwook Park’s Hollywood directing debut is a psychological thriller featuring an oddball protagonist who has lived a life of isolation for a long time and who carries out a devastating revenge against someone who has destroyed her family unit. (This scenario will be familiar to fans of Park’s Vengeance trilogy films.) On the eve of her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) hears that her father has died in a bizarre car accident and she and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) duly attend her old man’s funeral and must entertain the guests at the lunch-time wake. One of those guests is Dad’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) who insinuates himself into Mum’s life and affections. For someone besotted with Evelyn’s porcelain beauty and brittle spirit, Uncle Charlie pays rather too much attention to India herself. In the meantime the house-keeper and well-meaning Aunty Gin (Jacki Weaver) disappear mysteriously and India later discovers they have been murdered. India also learns a few things about Uncle Charlie and his murky past, and how his past may be connected with her present, her relationships with her parents, separately and together, and what these mean for her future as she leaves adolescence behind.

The plot is based on the Alfred Hitchcock film “Shadow of a Doubt”, in which a character, also called Charlie, preys on a widow and her daughter, and “Stoker” contains several visual references to Hitchcock’s work (“Psycho” most notably since this is the Hitchcock film most people know). However, in spite of a fine acting performance by Wasikowska, “Stoker” comes across as rather hollow compared to Hitchcock’s work. This may be due to the script, penned by actor Wentworth Miller, that Park worked with: the dialogue isn’t very good and some scenes in which India goes to school and is bullied by male classmates do not fit well into the rest of the film. Significant characters are very stereotyped and lack depth: Kidman, in playing Evelyn, must be on a personal quest to play Blanche duBois in the “A Streetcar named Desire” production to end all such productions while Goode’s character is plain creepy from the time when India spies him observing her at Dad’s funeral right up to the climax. At least Wasikowska does an excellent job portraying India (whose middle name could be Wednesday Addams) as an outsider coping with the usual angsty teenage-girl issues like competing with her mother, coping with social ostracism at school, fending off the attentions of boys and, er … dealing with an uncle with psychopathic tendencies.

Where Park excels is in creating an atmosphere of unease and growing horror with great use of cinematography that emphasises long shots and creative panning of the camera, and beautiful visual scenes that combine the innocence of nature with the grotesque and brutal. The style of “Stoker” is rather less flamboyant and melodramatic than some of Park’s earlier films but the toned-down style suits the subject matter and its steady but sure build-up to the climax. The use of music which includes Lee Hazlewood’s song “Summer Wine” is an important element in the film’s narrative and intense atmosphere of sexual frustration and longing.

The narrative has a cyclical structure in which the same or similar visual shots bookend the film. This refers to the film’s nature-versus-nurture theme: how much of India’s character and subsequent behaviour is the product of her family genetic inheritance, and how much of her upbringing? Kidman’s character Evelyn has some poignant lines in which she talks about the reason for having children: do people have children because they hope that their children will succeed where the parents do not (or cannot)? How aware were India’s father and Charlie Stoker of her character, to the extent that the father tried to shield India from Charlie and the family way by banishing Charle and teaching the daughter hunting? If the Stoker family has a troubling relationship with psychopathy, from which there may be survival advantages (it is only because India discovers her inner psychopath that she saves her own life and Evelyn’s life), what might this say for society at large?

Strip away Park’s input and the film becomes an ordinary if creepy family drama with a tight and incestuous love triangle. A Nick Cave is needed to inject some complexity into the script so that a motivation for India being and becoming in the family way can explain why she was brought up the way she was. How the best efforts of parents often tend to reinforce psychopathic tendencies in their children rather than keeping them dormant and unrealised could also have been made clearer in the film than it is.

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